Taxonomy on the Web - from Nature, pt. 1

Lee Poulsen
Fri, 03 Sep 2004 08:41:52 PDT
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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