Taxonomy on the Web - from Nature, pt. 1

Kevin D. Preuss
Fri, 03 Sep 2004 11:24:00 PDT
It can be frustrating...
There is little support for taxonomy, which is the basis for communication
in ecology.  Gov't institutions do not want to pay the $ to employ these
kind of abstract scienists.  Academia is where most go.
Then there are countries such as Brazil that make it difficult to visit and
study in the field.  Not that this country is much different... For all the
talk there is little action and even less $.
It is hard to feed your family on ideals...this message resonates through
the jungle communities whre diversity is richest on to the consumers that
drive this trend.

Kevin D. Preuss

----- Original Message ----- 
From: "Lee Poulsen" <>
To: "PBS Society" <>
Sent: Friday, September 03, 2004 11:41 AM
Subject: [pbs] Taxonomy on the Web - from Nature, pt. 1

Some interesting articles for those interested.

--Lee Poulsen
Pasadena area, California, USDA Zone 9-10


Nature 430, 385 (22 July 2004); doi:///10.1038/430385a

  Ignorance is not bliss

We are witnessing a catastrophic loss of species that is the direct
result of human activities. Yet we remain scandalously ill informed
about the processes that give rise to biodiversity, and the
consequences of its loss.

If variety is the spice of life, we face an increasingly bland future.
There are perhaps 10 million species of organism on Earth, of which at
most 1.8 million have been described. In some taxonomic groups, up to
20% of known species face extinction, and countless more are
disappearing unnoticed. This should concern us all because we don't
know what the consequences will be. In general, the less diverse an
ecosystem, the less productive and stable it is. But ecologists are
currently unable to make specific predictions that could help inform
decisions about development and conservation.

If this is to change, we must reinvigorate taxonomy and describe the
vast ranks of unnamed species. We need more passionate field workers,
like Peter Ng of the National University of Singapore, whose efforts to
catalogue neglected faunas are profiled on page 396. And we must ensure
that the results of their endeavours don't languish on dusty shelves.

We also need to answer practical questions about the consequences of
biodiversity loss. How many species are needed for an ecosystem to
function? Will the loss of certain key species have disproportionate
knock-on effects? This research must be done on appropriate scales of
time and space: consider biodiversity over too short a time, or too
small an area, and you can get the wrong answers.

Many interested scientists say gloomily that governments are not
interested in this work. Given the stakes, this defeatism isn't good
enough. Taxonomists and ecologists should look to the visionaries in
their own midst, and to what their colleagues in genetics and
climatology have achieved by understanding how to cast a research
agenda in a light that can inspire — and if necessary, alarm —

Few have a clearer vision than Charles Godfray, director of the UK
Natural Environment Research Council's Centre for Population Biology at
Silwood Park, west of London. He argues that taxonomy must emerge from
museums to become a web-based information science (H. C. J. Godfray
Nature 417, 17–19; 2002). Some initiatives of this ilk are under way,
but the call has been short-sightedly rejected by much of the taxonomic
community, notably the Linnean Society of London.

Godfray was also instrumental in setting up one of the few long-term
ecological projects investigating the consequences of declining
biodiversity in a developing country where the problem is particularly
acute. With backing from Britain's Royal Society, the Sabah
Biodiversity Project in Malaysian Borneo is investigating ecosystem
function and timber production in felled forests planted with varying
numbers of species of dipterocarp — the main type of tree found in the
rainforests of southeast Asia.

More projects of this type are needed, but they won't be forthcoming
unless ecologists can take a leaf from the book of the geneticists
whose lobbying in the late 1980s led to the Human Genome Project. There
are parallels between the two research agendas. Like taxonomy, genome
sequencing is purely descriptive, while the Sabah study of ecosystem
function is conceptually related to systems biology, the probing of the
function of gene networks that has followed in genomics' wake.
Taxonomists and ecologists need to dispel the notion that their work —
which involves dirty boots, rather than gleaming lab machinery — is
somehow less scientific.

The cheerleaders of genomics promised gains in terms of human health
and economic output. The economic consequences of ecosystem management
are harder to quantify, but they are no less real: sustainable
forestry, agriculture and tourism can all put developing economies on a
sounder footing, to the benefit of us all.

Climatologists faced similar problems in explaining the economics of
their case. After global warming was identified as a threat, some
leading climatologists became highly effective lobbyists, pounding the
corridors of power to stress the importance of their work. They won
increased research funding and the establishment of the influential
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

So far, taxonomists and ecologists have failed to muster a comparable
response to the galloping loss of our planet's biodiversity. It's time
that they did.

© 2004 Nature Publishing Group


Nature 431, 17  (02 September 2004); doi:///10.1038/431017b


> Linnean Society backs Godfray on use of web


Sir – Your Editorial "Ignorance is not bliss" (Nature 430, 385; 2004)
notes that Charles Godfray "argues that taxonomy must emerge from
museums to become a web-based information science". It continues: "Some
initiatives of this ilk are under way, but the call has been
short-sightedly rejected by much of the taxonomic community, notably
the Linnean Society of London."

I was president of the Linnean Society from 2000 to 2003. During this
period the society submitted written evidence to the Inquiry into
Systematic Biology and Biodiversity held by the House of Lords Select
Committee on Science and Technology. This evidence was published in
What on Earth? The Threat to the Science Underpinning Conservation:
Evidence (HL paper 118 (ii); 2002).

On pages 124–125, the following statement occurs as part of the Linnean
Society's evidence (all of which was formally approved by its council):
"Professor Charles Godfray FRS ... argues powerfully and persuasively
for a major sea-change in taxonomy whereby the systematics of all
groups of organisms would become a single web-based resource .... His
proposal would have the particular advantage that at last, taxonomic
information would become easily available .... This will be essential
if real and effective progress is to be made in the conservation of
biodiversity in the UK."

The Linnean Society therefore does not reject but supports the
initiatives that have been proposed by Charles Godfray.

David Smith
13 Abbotsford Park, Edinburgh EH10 5DZ, UK

© 2004 Nature Publishing Group


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