Taxonomy: The naming crisis

Taxonomy tells us how animals, plants and the planet are changing. But without better funding and more young scientists, we will be left with millions of anonymous species, says Roger Dobson

Monday 14 March 2011 01:00 GMT

It was under the last rock of the day, that scientists finally came face to antennae with the giant crayfish of Shoal Creek. Twice as big as its competitors, the hairy crayfish, which can grow to lobster proportions, was a new species not previously seen.

Scientists had begun the search for the creature, now named Barbicambarus simmonsi, after anecdotal reports and sightings in creeks around Tennessee. "It was the end of the day and we saw this big flat boulder underneath a bridge and so we said, 'OK. Let's flip this rock, just for the heck of it; this will be our last one','' says co-discovers Dr Guenter Schuster. "And sure enough, that's where we got the first specimen, a big male.'"

The hairy crayfish is one of an estimated 16,000 new species that have been found over the past 12 months, bringing the size of the known animal kingdom to some 1.4 million species. But there is still a long way to go. There are more than five million which remain to be found, according to new research, which warns that at the present rate of cataloguing them all will take 360 years.

Researchers, who describe the situation as a crisis, are now calling for more efforts and resources to be put into the science of taxonomy – the discipline of describing, defining and naming organisms. A new report based on a survey of the current state of taxonomy in the UK, to be published shortly, will warn that more investment is needed in the science and that the UK has only about 500 taxonomists doing the bulk of the work.

"The collapse of taxonomy in the UK universities is extremely worrying, no one is training the new generation of young taxonomists needed to monitor changes in biodiversity, to deliver high-quality research, or to meet the demands of industry," says Professor Geoff Boxshall, zoologist at the Natural History Museum, who led the investigation.

Taxonomy really began as a science in the 18th century with the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, whose naming system is still used. The work is key to the conservation and management of biodiversity, yet there are more unknown than known species.

One of the challenges for taxonomy is that it is often seen as an old and intellectually unchallenging, conveyor- belt science, that simply involves describing new species. Worse still, it's been suggested that the analysis could be done just as well by comparing the DNA of each species – a kind of barcode taxonomy. Not so, say taxonomists, there is much more to their science than just comparing DNA. They are the curators of knowledge about species – their identity, how they live, and how they interact with others and the environment. They enable us to understand the functional role of biodiversity and help with the diagnosis of exotic pests and disease organisms. Measuring the impact of climate change on biodiversity is another key and burgeoning area requiring their skills.

Boxshall, who was scientific adviser to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee's recent inquiry into the subject, said: "Taxonomy is incredibly important. We need to understand biodiversity and its role in providing ecosystem services, such as pollination, upon which our society depends.

"Our concern is that taxonomy is not taken seriously. It is not rated very highly and there is very little in the way of practical courses at universities in the UK. We estimate that there are only 500 taxonomists in the UK and there are already significant gaps in our knowledge of the plant and animal species around us. Skills are being lost nationally and new graduates are no longer being trained.

"New molecular techniques, DNA barcoding and so on, will simplify the identification of species, but the basic information that can be provided by gene jockeys is only a small part of what taxonomy provides. Barcoding is a powerful tool, but it does not replace the taxonomist, who must integrate information from multiple sources.''

In an attempt to make governments aware of what needs to be done, researchers have, for the first time, calculated the cost of describing the entire animal kingdom, and estimated what resources are needed to tackle the shortfall in taxonomic knowledge.

The research, being reported in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution, was carried out by scientists in Brazil, one of the world's most prolific producers of new species reports and which has more taxonomists than most other countries. According to the report, 1,424,153 species have so far been catalogued worldwide, including 61,995 vertebrates and more than one million insects. The researchers estimate that that there are 5,426,075 unknown species. The study also shows that individual researchers describe 24.8 species in an average-length career, and they estimate the total cost of finishing the job at $263bn (£168,000m).

"Although this budget is huge, the main immediate obstacle to cataloguing animal diversity is undoubtedly the small and inadequate number of proficient taxonomists,'' say the researchers. "The most essential action now would be a concerted effort to raise the image of taxonomy from being seen merely as an old and simple task that is unfashionable, to being viewed instead as a fundamental, indispensable, and vibrant branch of the life sciences.''

That's a view echoed by other agencies who say the problem is expected to worsen because of the decline in young people being trained and the rapidly increasing average age of the taxonomic workforce. Another challenge is that taxonomists are not great grant generators for universities. "Inadequate taxonomic information and infrastructure, coupled with declining taxonomic expertise, hinders our ability to make informed decisions about conservation, sustainable use and sharing of the benefits derived from genetic resources,'' says the Global Taxonomy Initiative.

On the importance of taxonomy as a science, it says: "Global biodiversity is being lost at an unprecedented rate as a result of human activities, and decisions must be taken now to combat this trend. But how do decision-makers decide where to establish protected areas if they don't know what is being protected? How can regulators identify and combat harmful invasive species if they cannot distinguish them from native species? How do developing countries ensure that they reap the benefits of the use of their biological diversity, if they don't know the biological diversity that is being used?"

There have been earlier warnings about the state of taxonomy. A key conclusion of the third inquiry into systematic biology by the Lords Science and Technology Committee two years ago, was: "The state of taxonomy and systematics in the UK is unsatisfactory – in some areas to the point of crisis – and more needs to be done to ensure the future health of the discipline."

The latest research suggests that much remains to be done. Over the past two centuries, taxonomists have also named an estimated 1.9 million species of animals, plants and micro-organisms, but the total number may be as high as 30 million. Researchers say the challenge now is to tackle the problems before they affect our ability to conserve, use and share the benefits of biological diversity

Nice to meet you: Five newly named species

African wolf

Scientists studying genetic evidence have discovered a new species of wolf. They found that the animal previously known as the Egyptian jackal is in fact a grey wolf. The discovery, shows the animal is a relative of the Indian wolf and the Himalayan wolf. "It seems as if the Egyptian jackal is urgently set for a name-change, and its unique status as the only member of the grey wolf complex in Africa suggests that it should be renamed 'the African wolf,'' says Professor Nils Chr. Stenseth.

Half scorpion, half spider

Parobisium Yosemite was found in the darkness of granite caves in Yosemite National Park. Its venomous claw poisons prey, making it easier to eat. The half inch long creatures are believed to have evolved after the caves were cut off. "The canyon where it was found was made by a glacier during an ice age millions of years ago. Through time, rubble with larger rocks would fall and create piles with caves or subterranean voids. We think that's where this animal was trapped and evolved into the species that it is now,'' says Dr James Cokendolpher, assistant curator of invertebrates at Museum of Texas Tech University.

Flaming frog

Ranitomeya amazonica, a frog with a remarkably colourful fan of orange and red flame patterns around its head, is one of 1,200 new species of plants and vertebrates discovered in the Amazon biome over the last decade.

Bald parrot

Pyrilia aurantiocephala, was discovered in Amazonian Brazil. It has a bald head, and dazzling range of colours in its feathers. There are thought to be fewer than 10,000 adults, and the population is in decline because of habitat loss.

Giant rat

The Bosavi woolly rat, one of the biggest in the world, was discovered in the jungle of Papua New Guinea. It weighs in at around 3.5 pounds, and is more than two foot long from nose to tail. He can be found living in underground nests in the crater of an extinct volcano.

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