What do we know anyway?

A couple years ago, the appearance of a little rat in Laos (southeastern Asia) made it clear that we don’t know nearly as much about the world as we think we do. Locals call it the kha-nyou and generally eat it for dinner. But, the scientists that observed them in the wild found them to be “a friendly, furry creature, about the size of a squirrel, that waddles a bit like a duck.” Are the experts surprised? Yes! They say that the kha-nyou can trace its line to a rodent family that initial studies suggested became extinct more than 11 million years ago.

Laotian Rock Rat.

Laotian Rock Rat.

Great! Marvelous!! How wonderful that, in an age when we think we know it all, a furry and friendly rat the size of a squirrel that waddles like a duck can come into our lives and reveal to us that mystery still exists on our extraordinary planet.

In fact, scientists believe that millions of species have yet to be discovered and documented in order to complete a comprehensive directory of all life on Earth. Of course, not all life resembles our little rat/squirrel/duck friend from Laos. Life exists high in the atmosphere, deep in the soil, in thermal vents on the ocean floor and within animals themselves. Who knew that over 200 species of yeast live in the guts of beetles?? No one did until recently.

In the animal kingdom alone, there are 15,000 to 20,000 new species identified annually. But though life is abundant, it is also fragile. As quickly as we discover these new species, we are also exterminating them. Scientists confirm that we are living in the age of greatest extinction since the dinosaurs. How many kha-nyous are we exterminating before we get a chance to discover them and marvel at the feat of evolutionary survival that kept them here for millions of years?

But we don't need to travel to Laos to find creatures worth protecting. In every yard, park, pond and river, there are species that are fascinating and worthwhile. Yet too often we run away from them, fumigate them, scatter poison around for them, put out traps to catch them or nets to keep them out. And as hard as we try to get rid of “pests,” we cannot live without them and the role they play in the web of life that surrounds us - all the more so because today everything from a bee to a white-tailed deer is considered a pest.

Modern understanding of biodiversity has taught us that life, in all its forms, is precious and intrinsically valuable. In the words of Wendell Berry, “to treat life as less than a miracle, is to give up on it.” It is a word of caution we would do well to heed, since to give up on life is to give up on ourselves as well.