Zoology can save lives, now we need it to save the planet

A procession of professors of zoology illustrates the changing dominance of different kinds of scientific thinking over 150 years

William Campbell (left), who was first introduced to parasitology when he studied zoology at Trinity College Dublin, was awarded the Nobel prize in physiology or medicine in 2015

William Campbell (left), who was first introduced to parasitology when he studied zoology at Trinity College Dublin, was awarded the Nobel prize in physiology or medicine in 2015

 

Zoology is the study of worlds within worlds of animals. It is the touchstone that unites a wide range of academic subjects and philosophical approaches. The position of chair of zoology was established in 1871 at Trinity College Dublin, and over the last 150 years has been occupied by an assortment of anatomists, naturalists, cell biologists, physiologists and now an ecologist.

The procession of professors of zoology nicely illustrates the changing dominance of different kinds of scientific thinking over the past 150 years.

The formal study of zoology emerged from the medical schools with the comparative anatomy, the study of animal structures and form, including humans.

These early professors of zoology were trained as medical doctors but did not restrict themselves to questions of human anatomy only. Dissection of animals enabled crucial discoveries on how they functioned and evolved.

Throughout the 1700s and 1800s exotic creatures were shipped to Dublin from British colonies to be exhibited in the zoo. When the animals died they were auctioned to the medical schools for dissection and some were sent to taxidermists for preparation for display in museums.

Many of these specimens are still used by zoology undergraduates today to learn about the diversity of form and function in the animal kingdom. Museum specimens are precious snap-shots of biodiversity that has since changed or even disappeared completely. DNA and other molecules can still be retrieved and increase our understanding of what these animals ate, what genes they possessed, and how they interacted with their environments when alive.

Molecular level

By the mid-1900s zoological enquiry had moved to the cellular and molecular levels. This required increasingly sophisticated technology and laboratories, and changed the way that zoology was taught. It was a period that saw the demise of dissection and museum-based teaching and an increase in the teaching of genetics and modern laboratory skills.

The focus moved away from the whole organism in its environment and increasingly inwards to finer and finer scaled views of how organisms function at the cellular and molecular levels.

The waxing and waning of the whole organism versus molecular views of zoology has been resolved through the integration of genetics and other molecular tools into larger scale studies of animals, such as behaviour and ecology. It is now possible to get the entire genomic sequence of many species, and we have the modern equivalent of comparative anatomy, which is comparative genomics.

By understanding the commonalities and differences between the genetic codes of different kinds of animals we can reconstruct their evolutionary relationships, trace changes in their distributions through time and even reconstruct how their populations fluctuated.

Experiments testing how parasitic worms responded to extracts from a new bacterium led to the development of the drug ivermectin which has saved millions from the disease river blindness. William Campbell, who was first introduced to parasitology when he studied zoology at Trinity, was awarded the Nobel prize in physiology or medicine in 2015 for his part in the discovery. Campbell’s dissection kit from the time when he was a zoology student is now part of the museum where he completed his early training.

Basking shark

Zoology has as much to say about the detailed genetic unfolding of a developing limb as it does about how animals influence the planet’s climate. Computer models of populations of animals will determine whether future pest problems can be controlled.

The movements of iconic fish like basking shark and tuna will tell us how the giants of the oceans are responding to changing temperatures. How seaweeds modify the acidity of the ocean and help shellfish to make robust shells may enable us to continue to produce food and preserve ecosystems in increasingly inhospitable seas. The shapes of networks of interactions between predators, parasites and prey tell us how stable our ecosystems are likely to be in uncertain times.

We can build on the strong zoological foundations of the past 150 years, but we are in a race against time to develop solutions to the climate and biodiversity crises. Zoology can save lives, now we need it to save the planet.

Yvonne Buckley is an ecologist, Irish Research Council laureate and professor of zoology at Trinity College Dublin

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