Taxonomy is the science that accurately identifies, classifies and documents plant and animal species. It provides the “language” through which we can study biodiversity. It’s an exciting time for taxonomy, as advances in computer technology and genetic techniques change the pace at which taxonomic information becomes available.
The Council of Canadian Academies just released the report of the Expert Panel on Biodiversity Science, the Canadian Taxonomy: Exploring Biodiversity, Creating Opportunity (link: http://www.scienceadvice.ca/uploads/eng/assessments%20and%20publications%20and%20news%20releases/biodiversity/biodiversity_report_final_e.pdf )
The experts examined taxonomy trends in Canada and found that although we have immense biodiversity collections– over 50 million specimens – most of the information about these collections is locked away and not accessible via the Internet. We’re simply not sharing our data. As well, as expert taxonomists retire, they’re not being replaced, creating a huge gap in expertise.
Why should we care? Many environmental concerns arise because of the rapid changes in biodiversity. Only 65% of larger species in Canada have been named and described. Taking into account smaller species (e.g., microbes), the experts estimate that fewer than half of Canadian species are known. Without the required expertise, we simply won’t have accurate information to assess whether these species are in decline. We risk misidentification of introduced species and inaccurate information about how these will spread and whether they can harm our environment.
Clearly, it is critical to intercept or eradicate these invaders early, before they begin to wreak havoc. The panel reminds us that since 1987, when the zebra mussel was first detected in Canadian waters, it has cost the US and Canada over $5 billion in the Great Lakes basin alone.
The importance of expert taxonomists is highlighted by two beetle stories. The first is that of the Asian long-horned beetle, which kills many tree species. Alert New York residents contacted authorities about unusual damage to trees in their neighbourhood. An expert taxonomist identified the species and an eradication plan was put in place. In contrast, the brown spruce longhorn beetle had been deposited in a regional specimen collection at least 10 years before it began to invade Halifax. No one noticed.