Finders, Keepers

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Issue 30 - Authentics
Images©Piotr Naskrecki

Polish-born entomologist, photographer, author and founding member of the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP), Piotr Naskrecki is known for his scientific peer-reviewed papers and book chapters, as well as his photographs and nature writing. His work has been published in a number of national and international journals, including the BBC Wildlife magazine, BBC Knowledge, Natural History and National Wildlife, to mention but a few.

As a photographer, Naskrecki strives to promote the appreciation and conservation of invertebrate animals – insects, arachnids and their kin – by capturing both their beauty and their role as vital, often critically important members of the earth’s ecosystems.

His forthcoming book, Relics, will explore the ancient organisms and ecosystems of the globe. Sublime caught up with him to find out about his project and his passion for all things ‘insect’.

Sublime: What sparked your interest in unnamed, newly discovered organisms?
Piotr Naskrecki:
There is hardly a greater thrill to a biologist than knowing that you are the first person on the planet to see a new organism. The discovery of new forms of life – new species, new genera, or even new orders of organisms – is what drives me. I want to know what makes them different, how they fit into the evolutionary scheme of things and what roles they play in interaction with other organisms. Being able to give a name to a new animal or plant is also a lot of fun.

S: Your upcoming book, Relics, is said to explore the ancient organisms and ecosystems of the globe. How did you come to decide to look for these ‘ancient organisms’?
Most organisms in the book are well known, and have been explored by scientists for a long time. In only a few cases do I present species that have never been seen or photographed before. The main point of the book is to put a spotlight on those ancient organisms and places because they are often under the most serious threat of extinction or destruction.

S: Do you find it easy to locate the organisms, or does it involve an extensive search?
It is rather complicated – sometimes organisms that are very common and easy to find turn out to be unnamed, new-to-science species that have simply escaped the attention of scientists. Other times, especially in groups of organisms that have been studied extensively – birds, for example – finding a new species involves a lot of searching in some of the most remote areas of the globe.
But locating the new species is only half the job – you then need to prove that the species is indeed new to science. This requires a lot of specialised knowledge of taxonomy and classification and methods of species identification. My speciality is singing insects (katydids, grasshoppers and their relatives), and I rely on the properties of their call to identify them to species. If I record a species whose song I don’t recognise, it is a good sign that it may be new. I use other data such as morphological characters or DNA to prove that the species is still unnamed.

S: some of the images you’ve captured are of never-before-seen subjects. How long has it taken you to get precise images of the subjects in their natural habitats?
The kind of photography I do requires a lot of patience and detailed knowledge of the subject. For example, it is easy to notice and photograph ants running around on the forest floor, but more difficult to realise what they are doing and why and to document their entire complex behaviour. In some cases, like the photos I took in the shallow vernal pools of New England, I had to construct a pretty sophisticated system that allowed me to take photos underwater while standing on the shore. These photos took months of preparation and testing. In other cases, I had to travel to the opposite side of the globe to get the shots I needed. For example, to photograph the ancient reptile tuatara I had to fly to New Zealand, the only place in the world where you can still see them.

S: What drives you to embark on some very extensive and, would you say, sometimes fruitless searches?
My chief motivation is curiosity about life on earth. From earliest childhood I have been preoccupied by the diversity of animals and plants, and although I specialise in insects, I find all organisms endlessly fascinating (even mosquitoes and leeches!).

S: Do you have an idea of how many undiscovered species are out there?
Nobody knows for sure how many species remain to be discovered, but it is safe to say that we have identified and named less than 20% of living things. A recent estimate talks about 8.7m species currently living on earth, of which we have described only about 1.8m.

S: Who do you aim to inspire with your book and your experiences of the world of ‘unknown’ species?
My goal is to encourage everybody to pay more attention to the diversity and beauty of the life that surrounds us, but also to alert them to the fact that we are losing this life faster than we can document it. Species become extinct at the rate of about 26,000 per year, whereas scientists discover and describe about 15,000 new species per year. Huge numbers of completely unrecognised species are lost to extinction. We are also losing mostly the oldest, most fragile ecosystems and species, which have only survived for so long because they have been isolated from human impact. We must acknowledge their need to be left alone, and appreciate their uniqueness as the last carriers of information that has disappeared from the gene pool of the planet. I will be especially happy if my work inspires younger generations of readers, who still have time to influence our societies to save what is left of the amazing diversity of life.

Relics: Travels in Nature’s Time Machine by Piotr Naskrecki is published by University of Chicago Press

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