Strategies in taxonomy: research in a changing world e-conference

Organised by the European Platform for Biodiversity Research Strategy (EPBRS) and the BIOSTRAT project:
"Taxonomy as a basis for ecological research and biodiversity conservation"

My key-note comments for the "Strategies in taxonomy: research in a changing world" e-conference will address a designated topic "Taxonomy as a basis for ecological research and biodiversity conservation". I will refer to phylogenetics as well, noting that the aim of the new DIVERSITAS program, Biogenesis, is help bring evolutionary approaches to bear on pressing biodiversity problems.

Many of the most-pressing biodiversity issues lie at the interface of systematics, conservation, and ecology. Examples include important research topics such as the role of dispersal corridors, or the compositional changes in communities as a consequence of climate change. Naturally, single species studies provide well-known links between taxonomy and ecology - for example, in research on how management and conservation priorities are influenced by species designations. But I think that key research challenges arise from the need for biodiversity conservation to address overall biodiversity (e.g. all species). True biodiversity conservation must address not just the known but also the still-unknown variation (in Australia, only about 175,000 species of perhaps 680,000 are described and named). Of course, our knowledge-gap is even worse because decision-makers also need information about species' geographic distributions.

Conservation planning approaches this knowledge gap by using surrogates - e.g., one set of taxa stands in as a proxy for all the rest. Research so far suggests that individual taxon groups do not do very well as surrogates. This limitation highlights the need for more taxonomic work, and for research on new surrogates strategies.

One possible way to boost surrogacy is to make better use of ecological principles. We can infer ordinations assuming unimodal response of species to gradients. If the ordination space and gradients, derived using one set of species, are relevant to the distribution of many other species, then selecting reserves to fill gaps in the environmental space may improve representation of overall biodiversity. Research is needed to further develop such approaches.

Another possible way to boost surrogacy is to make better use of phylogeny. Recent work illustrates how phylogenetic patterns for different taxa may reflect shared history among areas - so that localities that are special for observed species also may be special for many other taxa. Research is needed to evaluate this hypothesis.

DNA Barcoding and related approaches may use estimated phylogeny and a phylogenetic approach, "PD", for conservation planning, with or without species designations. Recent work (e.g., Faith, 2008) suggests that we gain surrogates power by using PD and phylogeny. This contrasts with a conventional view that sees DNA barcoding as providing rapid assessment through conventional species-level indices applied to operational taxonomic units.

A possible advantage of the PD framework is that most any indices that are conventionally calculated for species can instead be calculated using phylogeny. For example, we can estimate the PD-endemism of regions (the unique evolutionary history represented by the region). Phylogenetic ecology may give different answers compared to species-ecology. How do we reconcile these?

I've highlighted surrogates strategies using phylogeny, and using gradients, but these two strategies can be combined. Microbial ecologists have pioneered "phylogenetic beta diversity" (Lozupone et al. 2007). PD-dissimilarities among localities are calculated using phylogenetic tree branches, and then ordinations reveal key gradients that may inform us about functional variation and ecosystem services. Future research can extend these new phylo-ecology approaches to biodiversity conservation research.

Conclusion - In order to address overall biodiversity, we need more taxonomic knowledge. Research linking taxonomy, phylogeny, and ecology may help us to make best-possible use of what we know now to estimate patterns for overall biodiversity.


Golding JS. and J Timberlake (2003) How Taxonomists Can Bridge the Gap Between Taxonomy and Conservation Science. Conservation Biology, 17, 1177-1178.

Faith, DP (2008) Phylogenetic diversity and conservation. Pp. 99-115. In (eds: SP Carroll and C Fox) Conservation Biology: Evolution in Action. Oxford University Press, New York, NY.

Forest, Félix, Richard Grenyer, Mathieu Rouget, T. Jonathan Davies, Richard M. Cowling, Daniel P. Faith, Andrew Balmford, John C. Manning, Serban Proches, Michelle van der Bank, Gail Reeves, Terry A. J. Hedderson and Vincent Savolainen (2007) Preserving the evolutionary potential of floras in biodiversity hotspots. Nature 445:757-760.

Lozupone, C.A., Hamady, M., Kelley, S.T. & Knight, R. (2007). Quantitative and qualitative beta diversity measures lead to different insights into factors that structure microbial communities. Appl. Environ. Microbiol., 73, 1576-1585.

Valentini, A., F. Pompanon and P. Taberlet (2008) DNA barcoding for ecologists, Trends in Ecology and Evolution Vol.24 No.2.

Dr Dan Faith , Senior Principal Research Scientist email:danfaith8[at]
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