3 million years ago, after the rise of the Panamanian land bridge. The number of families in South America first rose from 32 to 39 and then subsided to the 35 that exist there today. A comparable adjustment occurred in North America. At the generic level, North American elements dominated those from South America: 24 genera invaded to the south whereas only 12 invaded to the north. Hence, although equilibrium was roughly preserved, it resulted in a major shift in the composition of the previously isolated South American fauna (Marshall et al., 1982).

Each species is the repository of an immense amount of genetic information. The number of genes range from about 1,000 in bacteria and 10,000 in some fungi to 400,000 or more in many flowering plants and a few animals (Hinegardner, 1976). A typical mammal such as the house mouse (Mus musculus) has about 100,000 genes. This full complement is found in each of its myriad cells, organized from four strings of DNA, each of which comprises about a billion nucleotide pairs (George D.Snell, Jackson Laboratory, Maine, personal communication, 1987). (Human beings have genetic information closer in quantity to the mouse than to the more abundantly endowed salamanders and flowering plants; the difference, of course, lies in what is encoded.) If stretched out fully, the DNA would be roughly 1-meter long. But this molecule is invisible to the naked eye because it is only 20 angstroms in diameter. If we magnified it until its width equalled that of wrapping string, the fully extended molecule would be 960 kilometers long. As we traveled along its length, we would encounter some 20 nucleotide pairs or “letters” of genetic code per inch, or about 50 per centimeter. The full information contained therein, if translated into ordinary-size letters of printed text, would just about fill all 15 editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica published since 1768 (Wilson, 1985a).

The number of species and the amount of genetic information in a representative organism constitute only part of the biological diversity on Earth. Each species is made up of many organisms. For example, the 10,000 or so ant species have been estimated to comprise 1015 living individuals at each moment of time (Wilson, 1971). Except for cases of parthenogenesis and identical twinning, virtually no two members of the same species are genetically identical, due to the high levels of genetic polymorphism across many of the gene loci (Selander, 1976). At still another level, wide-ranging species consist of multiple breeding populations that display complex patterns of geographic variation in genetic polymorphism. Thus, even if an endangered species is saved from extinction, it will probably have lost much of its internal diversity. When the populations are allowed to expand again, they will be more nearly genetically uniform than the ancestral populations. The bison herds of today are biologically not quite the same—not so interesting—as the bison herds of the early nineteenth century.


Within particular higher groups of organisms, such as ammonites or fishes, species have a remarkably consistent longevity. As a result, the probability that a given species will become extinct in a given interval of time after it splits off from other species can be approximated as a constant, so that the frequency of species surviving

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