The Mallard Of Diversity
GBIF looks like an acronym that could be scribbled on the inside cover of a schoolgirl’s notebook, representing an expression of earnest affection – some variant of BFF. In fact, it represents a more serious idea: A place to collect data from observations of living organisms – the Global Biodiversity Information Facility.
The Global Biodiversity Information Facility combines information from the observation of almost 1.5 million species from over 14,000 datasets. What’s more, it makes this information available to search, for free.
Even a quick search shows how much can be learned from this resource. Using the species search at GBIF, I searched for the first animal that came to mind: The mallard duck.
I thought of the mallard duck because it’s common. What I discovered at GBIF is that the commonness of the mallard duck is creating uncommon problems.
I think of the mallard as a North American species. What I didn’t realize is that it’s much more widespread than that. It’s common in Europe, Asia and Africa as well, and has been spotted in South America.
There are even mallard ducks in Australia and New Zealand. I was surprised by this, having learned in biology class long ago that Australian fauna is distinct from that of the rest of the world, being separated even from the wildlife of nearby Indonesia by a boundary called the Wallace Line. Mallards, it seems, were purposefully introduced to New Zealand and Australia.
Mallard ducks are able intruders because of their remarkable flexibility. They are wild animals, but are also the ancestors of most of the domesticated ducks that we would expect to find waddling about in a farmyard. Mallards are genetically expansive as well. They are capable of interbreeding with 63 other species of ducks, so that, when mallards arrive in an area, they can infest the genomes of neighboring waterfowl.
On the other hand, GBIF informs me that mallards themselves are often infested by nest parasites. I’m not talking about lice in their feathers, but other waterfowl, who sneak in to lay their eggs in the nests of mallards, much in the way that cuckoo birds lay their eggs in other species’ nests.
Another little tidbit from the Global Biodiversity Information Facility has to do with the expansive boundaries of animal sexuality. Mallard ducks have been observed to engage in homosexual necrophilia.
If a search for the common mallard duck can reveal such surprises, imagine what other curiosities may await discovery within the GBIF.