His solution is to democratize the science of biological classification. AntWeb makes detailed photographs of museum specimens available at the click of a mouse. It also provides links to the scientific literature for each species at an American Museum of Natural History Web site, antbase.org. Thus the Internet provides anyone anywhere with the tools to discover new species. In "team taxonomy," Fisher says, backyard naturalists will be able to recognize what's unusual in their own neighborhoods and then collaborate with professionals to enter it into the annals of science.
The problem with traditional methods of collecting and preserving specimens isn't just that they're slow, Fisher says, but that they often make the results inaccessible to almost everyone. Everything comes down to the specimen on its pin, a sort of sacred totem to the taxonomic priesthood. The shaft of the pin holds tiny, folded scraps of paper full of spidery notations of crucial data like the time and place of collection. If the collector was especially enthusiastic or if the species has been renamed in the course of a taxonomic revision, a pin may hold up to 10 different labels. To read the bits of paper, you have to slide them off the pin with a pair of tweezers.
That is, assuming you can find the right pin. The rules dictate that there should be a "type specimen" establishing the characteristics of the species for all time. But as he traveled through the world's great natural history museums trying to assemble the basic data about Madagascar species, Fisher found that past collectors often failed to label specimens as "types." They also neglected to name the museums where they were stored.
Idiosyncratic organizing schemes further complicated Fisher's search. Specimen pins are typically stored standing upright in neat rows inside glass-topped boxes. One national museum boasted more than 300 boxes of ants. "But if you wanted to find collections for Madagascar," says Fisher, "you had to start at box one and study every box." He also had to use his field headlamp to see the ants in the dim museum light.
"It was abysmal," he says. "It was sad. The myth is that this is forever. You create the specimens, and that's your legacy forever. You think it will be looked after by society." He pauses. "They've been forgotten. They're shoved in a corner nobody's looked at for 100 years. They're in such disarray!"
The emphasis, says Fisher, shouldn't be on the specimen as the sole bearer of all information—it should be on the Web site or the database, with the specimen serving only as a voucher. "It's such a subtle change, but it really frees you up," he says. The Web site gives a collector the space to record detailed ecological data about a specimen. Other people can find the information almost instantly and organize it any way they want—by "Madagascar type specimens," for instance, or by "ants worldwide" found "ex rotten log."
Web sites can also include genetic information. Proponents of DNA bar coding analyze a short piece of the genome—about 600 nucleotide base pairs out of the millions or billions in an organism—to see whether, say, two very different-looking individuals might in fact be the same species. To make that determination by traditional means, you need a taxonomist like Fisher with years of postgraduate training. In the case of ants, he must collect about 20 specimens, sit down at a microscope, and make 15 measurements on each one, where differences of a millimeter are crucial. But for $5, anyone can get a sequencing machine to look at a single mitochondrial gene and say, "This might be a new species." On his last collecting trip, Fisher shipped off the genetic raw material and in three weeks got back all the DNA sequencing data.
"It told you immediately what site was most diverse and what site was most unique," he says. "Taxonomists would shoot me if I said, 'Genes could replace taxonomy,' but for a lot of species, genes are the only data we're going to have. We have buckets of flies and wasps that nobody's working on. If we sequence them all, we'd at least have an idea what's out there. People say, 'That's not taxonomy.' Well, it's a type of taxonomy. It allows you to do all sorts of stuff about endemism, suggest new species, how different and how similar things are, without ever knowing the names of species.
"What they're afraid of is taxonomy being done poorly. What I want to show is that new tools will allow more people to participate in taxonomy, and we can do better taxonomy." Instead of being buried under a hundred lifetimes of unsorted specimens, taxonomists will be free to cut straight to difficult questions where their expertise can make a difference. It isn't the end of taxonomy, says Fisher. It's the golden age.
Fisher and his group move to a new site called Vatovavy, a fragment of forest in a saddle of land between two peaks. It has escaped deforestation because it is sacred to the dead, who are entombed in a building at the edge of the woods. Fisher is soon on his knees in front of a log crawling with Cerapachys ants.
"They're so beautiful to watch. They don't have a trail pheromone, so they walk head to butt, head to butt. They're like little beads on a necklace walking around, little shiny black pearls." Cerapachys is a relict genus, dating back more than 100 million years to when Madagascar split away from the mainland. Like a lot of the island fauna, says Fisher, it opens a window on early evolution. Elsewhere, Cerapachys-like ants evolved into army ants, probably more than 90 million years ago, before Africa and South America separated.
But here, the ancestral lineage still thrives. "They feed off the larvae and pupae of other ants. They trek out of the nest and into another ant nest and steal their larvae and take 'em home and eat 'em. You can tell they're primitive the way they walk around. They can't even scurry. They hadn't invented scurrying yet."
To Fisher, every ant, like Cerapachys, tells a story, and the stories only make sense if taxonomy can explain where a species fits into the scheme of evolution. Understanding the story isn't just a question of aesthetic or intellectual interest.
"Imagine the storehouse of evolutionary information," he says, "in 10,000 species living in the dark, wet soil, having to keep fungus and bacteria off their young and off themselves. Ants are chemical factories. They produce antifungal and antibacterial agents. So you think, My God, bioprospectors would love to get into this." Ants could become a precious pharmaceutical resource, especially now that resistance has rendered many conventional antibiotics ineffective.
Fisher argues that ants are also valuable in determining which habitats to preserve and which to let go. "Bird people and mammal people will go into a place and say, 'There's nothing here, it's all been hunted out.' And we'll go and say, 'There's the most interesting stuff. You've got to save it.' " Ants can't readily cross rivers, mountains, and other barriers. So they stay put and become specialists in a relatively small home range. This makes them a useful tool for detecting ecological subtleties that might not be evident just from looking at larger animals. To Fisher, a varied ant population suggests that "the forest has a unique history, a unique assemblage, and should be preserved even though it doesn't have some fuzzy vertebrate living there."
He balks at the idea of ants as a mere indicator species: "They're not just a shortcut to finding diversity; they are the diversity." It is not unusual, for instance, when one member of the team shows up during a snack break at Vatovavy with 10 genera of ants after just a few hours of collecting. "You can remove all the birds and still have a forest," says Fisher. "But you can't have a forest without invertebrates. It won't function anymore. The ants are the glue that holds it together."
He concedes that no one is likely to save a forest just for ants. But Madagascar president Marc Ravalomanana, a former businessman, has publicly committed himself to tripling the area of protected habitat on the island. Fisher is one of a group of scientists, conservationists, and government officials helping to determine which habitats merit protection. Other members of the group say his ant data are so thorough that, as they formulate their recommendations, they are using his facts in ways "almost comparable to the bird and mammal data."
On the drive back from Vatovavy, Fisher makes a flying stop at a conservation meeting in a national park. He bumps into Bernard Koto, the regional governor, a formidable figure with a background in conservation who is feeling pressure to come up with more acreage to be protected, and fast. (President Ravalomanana's deadline for tripling protected acreage is 2008.) Koto wants to know what Fisher has been finding at Vatovavy and whether the forest has the potential to become a reserve. It does not seem to trouble him that the biodiversity they are talking about is in the form of ants. Fisher promises Koto that he can have the Vatovavy data not in two years but in two months. Meanwhile, his crew members are quietly folding themselves back into their vehicle.
"This," says Fisher, his foot on the accelerator, "is how conservation gets done."