What is taxonomy, why is it so important and what does the future hold for it?

It was the final night of our biodiversity survey and our first proper dinner together in Dili. After 10 days of hard work, the scientists finally had a moment to reflect on what they'd been able to achieve, both in Timor and in their careers.

The big question that was being asked, and was of much concern, was who will do the work after they retire? I'd noticed the predominance of grey hair on the trip, but it was Senior Principal Research Scientist Pat Hutchings who pointed out the difficulties the current and next generations of taxonomists face.

MH: What is taxonomy?

PH: Taxonomy is the description and cataloguing of fauna and flora. We use both molecular biology and morphology to do this. Going beyond that and determining the relationship among species (i.e. the family tree) is called systematics.

Most taxonomists are based at museums (such as ours) and herbaria (such as the Royal Botanical Gardens). Museums hold valuable collections which need to be examined and also extensive libraries of the old literature for scientist to use in their work.

The CSIRO does employ some taxonomists at the Australian National Insect collection in Canberra, and at the Marine Laboratories in Hobart.

In Australia, there are very few taxonomists employed at Universities. It appears universities and most grant agencies do not regard taxonomy and systematics as ‘cutting edge science’.

MH: Why is taxonomy important? How is it used?

PH: Taxonomy and Systematics provide the basis for all biological research, because a scientist must know what species they are working on, and what it is related to.

Why must they know? From a practical point of view, if you have misidentified your study animal, then your results have no context, and cannot be validly applied to understanding the biology, ecology, management or any other aspect of the species.

Also, knowing the family tree of your study animal enables you to compare your results with other work on related species, and provides the basis for the comparative method, which has been very powerful.

For example, the results of drug tests on monkeys are known to be more relevant to humans than similar tests on fish, because we know the monkey and the human are more closely related to each other than either are to fish.

MH: What is the state of marine taxonomy in Australia at the moment?

PH: The marine fauna and flora of Australia is very diverse. For example, there are about 5000 known fish species, which constitutes about 75% of all Australian vertebrate species!

A fish species new to Australia is discovered at a rate of about one per week, yet the number of fish taxonomists in Australia is declining rapidly. The situation is similar for Australian marine invertebrates.

The Australian Research Council (the main research funding body in Australia) has had its funding cut. This year, in a surprise decision, we were told that museums and herbaria were no longer eligible to apply for ARC discovery grants and this greatly hampers research by museum scientists – attempts are being made to have this situation reversed but so far no progress.

The main funding source for specific taxonomy research is the ABRS, but they are able to fund only 11 new projects each year for all of Australia for both animals and plants.

Further, ABRS requires the applicant to provide a ‘co-contribution’ (i.e. matching funds), which is difficult for most museum researchers because Museums are cash-poor. For example, the research budget of a research scientist at the Australian Museum is about $3000 pa, and most museums in Australia have been cutting back on research positions for many years.

Young taxonomists want to continue their research but where will they go? There are few jobs for them, and doing taxonomic research is becoming more expensive as new DNA and imaging technology has been developed. This is a problem not just in Australia, but world wide.

At this stage, it looks like we will have no fish researchers at the Australian Museum after Jeff Leis retires.

MH: If marine taxonomists have become an endangered species, why is it important that they be saved?

PH: As mentioned above, taxonomy is the building block of biology. These days especially there is an increasing need for biodiversity research and inventories and most countries have signed up to the Rio Convention on protecting and conserving biodiversity.

But without taxonomists, you cannot measure biodiversity. Without taxonomic research into a particular habitat, you cannot know the biodiversity of that habitat and if it is in fact changing.

If there are no taxonomists, who’s going to do this work? Who’s going to provide the knowledge to enable others to identify more animals in the future?

Also, new species are being discovered by taxonomists all the time. Only just recently, what was previously thought to be a single species of wobbegong was split into two. Now, because each species has different ecological requirements, if the Wobbegong had been identified for conservation, what may have been a strategy suitable for one species, might not have been suitable for the other.

MH: How do you think the number of marine taxonomists could be restored, even surpassed? In other words, what can be done?

PH: We need to look at ways of obtaining funds from sources other than government. Entering into partnerships with companies and foundations is one way. For example, The Australian Museum Foundation funded our recent biodiversity survey of East Timor. Also, the Western Australian Musem has entered into a six year project with Woodside.

While it’s fantastic to hear of biodiversity surveys that have been enabled due to these partnerships, it would be even more fantastic if industry would support taxonomic positions at museums and the like.

In the USA, many museum taxonomist positions are funded by endowed chairs. Philanthropy of this sort is extremely rare in Australia. Why is that? Can that change? We need better career paths with more stable jobs to encourage young researchers to stay in the field.

We also need to be better communicators both with people with funding and influence, as well with the general public. Perhaps part of that is finding ‘hooks’. I often talk about marine pests, for example. Without taxonomists, how do we recognise them? Without taxonomists, how can we save habitats?