Want to save diversity? Talk to a local

A report from the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science says that “many animals and plants threatened with extinction could be saved if scientists spent more time talking with the native people whose knowledge of local species is dying out as fast as their languages are being lost”. David Harrison, the scientist whose work is reported, says that the recent DNA-based discovery that a butterfly known to taxonomists as Astraptes fulgerator was in fact three different species (or, perhaps, 10 — did the locals know that?) could have been made much sooner if the scientists had talked to the Tzeltal-speaking people of Mexico, because Tzeltal has several descriptions of the butterflies based on the different kinds of caterpillar. The people distinguish the larvae because the caterpillars eat the peoples crops, whereas the butterflies are of no significance.

“It’s crucial for them to know which larva is eating which crop and at what time of year. Their survival literally depends on knowing that, whereas the adult butterfly has no impact on their crops,” Harrison said.

There must be other agriculturally-informed examples, but the opposite is also often true, creating a nightmare for scientists interested in genetic diversity. Farmers may use the same name for completely different populations of a crop. And they may use different names for genetically identical populations. What’s a poor researcher to do?
p.s (There are a bunch of other studies about names and identity; can I find them? Can I heck.)

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