Sunday, 15 February 2009

Fast and furious taxonomy

We've been naming plants (i.e. doing taxonomy) for a long time - back at least to Ancient Greece, with Carl Linnaeus bringing a little more order to our systems in the eighteenth century. Like everything else in science, though, I wouldn't be suprised if China was doing a little taxonomy on the side in between.

After so many years you'd think we would pretty good at it and have most living things on earth named. Not quite. It's estimated we are about a fifth of the way ther e, although no-one is quite sure of the size of the problem - probably somewhere between 5 and 100 million species, with just under 2 million described.

So plenty of work to do. But every stage of the process is time-consuming - discovering, collecting, sorting, preserving, databasing, describing, conceptualising (the big intellectual step - working out where a species starts and finishes and why it is different), illustrating, publishing etc.

Every 'taxonomist' knows, and worries about, that if we don't get a move on, many species will become extinct before we even discover them. Discovering and naming them is all part of understanding how they work, how they relate to the world around them and how to manage them for long-term survival.

On friday I travelled to Canberra to be part of the Taxonomy Research and Information Network (TRIN) steering committee. The network is all about accelerating the taxonomic process, filling the gaps in our knowledge, using innovative approaches to taxonomy, delivering easily accessible taxonomic information, and growing the taxonomic effort in Australia.

The early results are very encouraging and we heard updates on weedy lantana, ants, aquatic insects, rats and mangrove communities, as well as improvements in the ways taxonomists communicate with each other and with everyone else, a series of interactive keys to insect families. A fascinating question raised was how a taxonomist decides enough is enough, and when to turn to a new project. This is a tough question for every taxonomist (and scientist generally) - inevitably we can't answer all the scientific, policy and management questions, and there comes a time when we enter a phase of diminishing returns.

Collaborating on the web ('Web 2.0') certainly helps collaboration and should speed up taxonomy. Molecular sequencing increases precision and allows us to crack some of the previously impenetrable conundrums (although it can also mean that we have more evidence to sort through and further delay decision-making). Interconnected databases are essential, as will be standardised and simple publication systems. But one of the great things 'TRIN' is doing, is bringing together our brightest minds to solve our most pressing taxonomic questions.

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