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Biodiversity 911

03/19/02 12:00AM By Ted Levin

It was Edward Osborne Wilson, the preeminent Harvard zoologist and ant connoisseur, who coined the term "biodiversity." In his 1992 book, The Diversity of Life, E. O. Wilson defines biodiversity as "The variety of organisms considered at all levels, from genetic variants belonging to the same species through arrays of species to arrays of genera, families, and still higher taxonomic levels; includes the variety of ecosystems, which comprise both the communities of organisms within particular habitats and the physical conditions under which they live." He left nothing out.

It's biologic diversity--and the diversity of human cultures and individuals--that makes Earth so interesting, so beautiful, so absolutely inspiring and so reasonably stable.

To celebrate this varied and magical tapestry of life and to sound a call to arms for its defense, the Montshire Museum of Science, in Norwich, is hosting BIODIVERSITY 911, a traveling exhibit assembled and distributed by the World Wildlife Fund, the original WWF.

The exhibits are interactive, thought provoking, and, best of all, designed for children without being heavy handed. One exhibit, The Fisheries of the World, challenges you to make a sustainable fish chowder by selecting from a virtual fish market those fish or shellfish whose populations can handle a commercial harvest.

If you select the correct species from the virtual market--halibut or striped bass for instance--you get a big yellow check on your shopping list, a bit of pertinent information about your selection, and a hearty congratulations from a man dressed as a hybrid Julia Childs.

If you pick a species that isn't sustainable, shrimp for instance, this guy berates you with a voice so obnoxious you're bound to get your next selection right.

Then, there are the juicy factoids liberally sprinkled in the exhibits. Gems like a single pinch of soil can hold 6 billion microbes; or the World's largest living organism, a honey mushroom, which covers 2,200 acres in Oregon started from a single spoor 2,400 years ago.

BIODIVERSITY 911 even takes the notion of planetary awareness into your garage and utility closet. You discover that the average American home contains 25 gallons of toxic waste and that in just one year, every happy go lucky American generates approximately 2 tons of toxic waste either directly or indirectly. That even includes those living off the grid and driving hybrid cars.

I've visited BIODIVERSITY 911 three times already and plan to go again. Like all excellent museum displays there is depth and beauty, as well as a message. It's especially interesting to see it in the company of children, but well worth the trip for just adults too. And if you should happen to know E. O. Wilson, bring him along. I'm sure he'd feel right at home.

This is Ted Levin of Gillette Swamp in Thetford Center, Vermont.

--Ted Levin is a writer and photographer specializing in natural history.

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