APPENDIX 4: SEMINAR AT THE NATURAL
6 February 2008
The following presentations were given:
- Overview (Dr Sandy Knapp,
Merit Researcher, The Natural History Museum);
- National capacity (Professor Geoffrey Boxshall
FRS, Merit Researcher FRS, The Natural History Museum);
- Web-based taxonomy (Professor Charles Godfray
FRS, Hope Professor of Zoology, University of Oxford);
- Phylogenetics (Professor Mark Chase FRS,
Keeper of the Jodrell Laboratory, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew);
- Resurgence of the phenotype (Professor Bland
Finlay FRS, Queen Mary University of London).
Overview (Dr Sandy Knapp)
Phylogeny, identification and description
Dr Knapp began by describing the three principal
activities of the science of taxonomy: phylogeny, identification
and description, focusing in particular on descriptive taxonomy
which, she said, could be regarded as the "Cinderella of
taxonomy" because it was largely ignored. Every species name
was a hypothesis about the distribution of variation in nature
and species definition was an ongoing discipline that required
constant testing. Collections of organisms were critically important
to taxonomy because they provided the basis for hypothesis testing.
Global taxonomic effort
It was very difficult to find statistics about global
taxonomic effort because there was no standardised global collection
of data. The most useful information came from Australia. Amongst
other things, it had been found that, in Australia, between 1991
and 2003 the number of taxonomic scientists had fallen but the
number of those providing technical support had increased. Despite
this, the single biggest impediment to taxonomic activity was
identified as lack of technical support. This might be a demonstration
of the expanding technology associated with taxonomy. Indicative
global statistics with regard to taxonomic effort in flowering
plants (by reference to the International Plant Names Index) suggested
that another challenge facing taxonomy was an ever-increasing
National capacity (Professor Geoffrey Boxshall)
Professor Boxshall focused on two questions:
Why does the UK need a national capacity in taxonomy?
Reasons why the UK needed a national capacity in
taxonomy included the following: to monitor and detect change
in biodiversity; to understand the functional role of biodiversity;
to provide data underpinning conservation; to meet international
obligations; to detect and control alien species; to support identification
services; to be a credible player internationally, and to interpret
taxon-based knowledge. With regard to the second of theseto
understand the functional role of biodiversitya key concept
which had emerged strongly in recent years was "ecosystem
services". "Ecosystem services" were "the
benefits people obtain from ecosystems". The concept had
been broken down by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment into four
types of service: (direct) provisioning (for example, food and
fresh water), regulating (for example, climate regulation and
flood regulation, pollination), cultural (for example, recreational
and educational services) and, the most basic, supporting (for
example, primary production and soil formation). "Ecosystem
services" was an essential concept connecting biodiversity
and the constituents of human well-being, and it had re-set the
context for the Committee's inquiry. The ecosystem functioning
research community was a source of high level demand for taxonomic
skills and that level of demand demonstrated a recognition that
taxonomy was essential for their work.
How does the UK national capacity compare in the
Comparison could be made by looking at: collections,
digital access to data, output (descriptive taxonomy), contributors
to international programmes, capacity building and quality control
The UK was a global leader in terms of museums and
botanic gardens. The UK had done less well with digital access
to data. With regard to output measuresdescriptive taxonomythe
UK was still producing descriptive taxonomy but, looking at, for
example, data from Zootaxa 2001-07 and the league table
for animal species, it appeared that the UK global influence in
descriptive taxonomy was slipping. Those countries which were
doing well, such as the USA, Brazil and Australia, all had taxon-focused
funding programmes. With regard to contributors to international
programmes, capacity building and quality control, evidence suggested
they were all in decline in the UK.
The continuing erosion of national taxonomic capacity
reduced the UK's capacity to assess the biological impact of climate
change, to study the sustainability of ecosystem services, to
meet our formal obligations under the Convention on Biological
Diversity and to detect alien species. It also reduced our credibility
with the international biodiversity science community and reduced
our ability to disseminate and interpret biodiversity information.
Web-based taxonomy (Professor Charles Godfray)
Current uses of the web
Professor Godfray began by setting out four
main current uses by taxonomists of the web: enabling taxonomists
to talk to other taxonomists (for example, specimen-level databases,
type-specimen databases); linking data sources (for example, the
Global Biodiversity Information Facility and the National Biodiversity
Network); enabling taxonomists to talk to the broader community
(via, for example, taxon sites and molecular taxonomic sites such
as the Tree of Life), and making available taxonomic information
for amateur biologists such as naturalists and gardeners etc.
Threats and drivers
Biodiversity and global change were creating a huge
thirst for taxonomic information. Added to this is the greater
expectation amongst biologists for information sources that are
both accessible and easier to use. A major driver is the increasing
speed of the molecular revolution. Some taxonomic tasks that in
the past could only be done by specialist taxonomists can now
be addressed by general biologists using sequence data. Programmes
such as molecular barcoding will also produce large amounts of
taxonomic-relevant molecular data. There is a major risk of a
disconnect between molecular and morphological taxonomy.
How the web might be used
The web has the potential to bring together all parts
of taxonomy; morphological and molecular, professional and amateur,
provider and user. While the web is being used extensively in
taxonomy there has yet to be the step-change that is required
to address the current major taxonomic challenges. Though there
is a plethora of taxonomic eScience projects these tend to be
small scale, and there has been insufficient investment in overcoming
the major hurdle: putting very substantial content on the web.
In the future, the web could provide improved functionality
for many aspects of taxonomy (for example, significantly more
information including sound, movies and photomontage, and the
application of Digital Object Identifier technologies), greater
subject cohesiveness (thereby countering the divide between molecular
and morphological taxonomy), greater efficiency and better links
Hurdles in the way of developing the web for taxonomic
purposes included: the cost and other resource implications of
moving information to the web; the need for prioritisation and
cooperation; and sustainability.
The unique position of the UK
Despite the decline in UK taxonomy, the UK had significant
influence over the future development of the subject. This was
linked to its historical role and the collections it housed. The
two greatest challenges now facing the UK taxonomic community
were leadership and resourcing. Leadership needs to come from
the country's major taxonomic institutions, and both "one-off"
resources for transferring taxonomy to the web and a business
plan for sustainability of this resource needs to be devised.
Phylogenetics (Professor Mark Chase)
The purpose of classification was: to enable an inventory
to be created; to develop lists of names which were recognised
world-wide; to enable an understanding of relationships; and to
enable some degree of predictability (for example, where there
was a close relationship between two organisms, the genetics of
one could be assumed to be related to the genetics of the other).
Current classification included both clusters of
relationships and measurement of confidence, expressed numerically,
in the relationship asserted by the clustering. The information
behind this type of classification was largely molecular but the
effect of this was not to create a discrepancy between molecular
and other taxonomies. On the contrary, those who were exposed
to the meaning of DNA information were able to integrate the different
types of taxonomy.
Phylogenetic trees had a number of purposes: they
were useful for assessing relationships between organisms; they
assisted in evaluating hypotheses of character evolution; they
were useful in assessing patterns of biogeographythe distribution
of plants around the world; they provided information about molecular
clocksthe timing of events across the phylogenetic tree;
and, a developing area, they assisted in assessing the past effects
of climate change and predicting the future effects of climate
change on species distributions. Names provided the points of
entry into databases and phylogenetics provided the connections.
Phylogenetics could be described as the "glue" that
connected everything and turned data points into hypotheses. Paradoxically,
it was possible to have taxonomic diversity at the same time as
a deficit of phylogenetic diversity. Phylogenetic tress were necessary
to understand this issues.
DNA barcoding was identification of species based
on a short piece of DNA. Eventually it would be carried out using
a hand-held device. It would not displace the need for taxonomists
since barcoding depended on well-characterised reference bases
and accurate use of names. It would relieve taxonomists from having
to spend time on routine identifications.
Molecular phylogenetics tended not to be done in
universities because it was not well-funded.
Resurgence of the phenotype (Professor Bland
To expand knowledge, it was necessary to study the
phenotype and whole organism (by observation, description and
experiment). Describing organisms solely on the basis of phylogenetic
trees provided little relevant biological information, and threatened
to dismiss a large body of knowledge accumulated over two centuries.
The arrival of molecular markers such as rDNA had the potential
to sow confusion with an almost infinite variety of genotypes
from a vast global pool of mainly selective neutral mutations
that had accumulated over historical time.
Professor Richard Bateman, President of the
Systematics Association, Dr Chris Lyall, UK National Focal
Point, Global Taxonomy Initiative and Professor Georgina
Mace, Director of the Centre for Population Biology at the NERC
Collaborative Centre gave brief commentaries.
Following a short general discussion, Professor Boxshall
summed up the key themes of the seminar:
- The taxonomic landscape, and consequently
taxonomic priorities, had changed significantly in recent years
with the emergence of the concept of ecosystem services.
- The range of users of taxonomy was expanding
and would continue to expand. Allied to this was a tension created
by an increasing demand for taxonomists without there being a
commensurate increase in resources, in the size of the pool of
taxonomic expertise or in the infrastructure.
- Issues relating to support for the amateur taxonomic
community needed to be addressed.
- Descriptive taxonomy in particular needed careful
attention. The core of experienced expertise in this area of taxonomic
activity was the rate limiting factor in the UK's contribution
to descriptive taxonomy.
- The idea of taxonomic "national capacity"
and a "critical mass of expertise" underpinned the Committee's
2002 report and should continue to be a focus for the current
- Technological innovation had created a powerful
set of tools for the taxonomist. But the state of taxonomy in
the UK was not susceptible to a "quick technological fix".
Technology was a driver but also needed to be harnessed and used
- The UK had a leadership role to play in promoting
taxonomy, a role which required developing and facilitating.