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Australasian Plant Conservation

Originally published in Australasian Plant Conservation 16(1), June - August 2007

President’s Report: Taxonomy and plant conservation

Judy West
Centre for Plant Biodiversity Research, CSIRO Plant Industry

Plant conservation and effective biodiversity management largely depend on sound taxonomy. You can’t conserve it unless you know it’s there, and you have to be able to identify it reliably. The role of taxonomy may not be overtly recognised by many conservation practitioners and land managers, and the underpinning taxonomic knowledge may be taken for granted, just as we have been taking for granted the many services maintained by natural and managed ecosystems. The ANPC has as part of its mandate the linking of outcomes of scientific research to on-ground conservation activities. In this issue of Australasian Plant Conservation we endeavour to illustrate how the results of systematic and taxonomic research efforts interact with and contribute to plant conservation.

Legislative recognition

At the international level taxonomy has been recognised as an integral part of plant conservation. The Global Taxonomy Initiative (GTI) was established under the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) in recognition of the significant role taxonomic knowledge gaps play in hindering our ability to manage and use the world’s biological diversity in a sustainable manner – known as the ‘taxonomic impediment’. Further, in 2002 the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (GSPC) was developed following international concern that inadequate emphasis and resources were being directed towards plant conservation specifically. The GSPC has targets set for 2010 relating to current knowledge and arresting the continuing loss of plant diversity.

Within Australia, improving our taxonomic knowledge and understanding of the biological diversity of the country was identified as a priority in the National Strategy for the Conservation of Australia’s Biological Diversity.

This is reiterated and identified as high research priority in the ANZECC and Biological Diversity Advisory Council (BDAC) 2001 identification of Australia’s Biodiversity Conservation research priorities. While this priority-setting exercise related particularly to threatened species, communities and ecosystems, the underlying necessity of broadscale taxonomic information remains critical.

There is increasing recognition by Commonwealth and State and Territory agencies of the significance of sound taxonomy, particularly in areas relating to governmental controls, such as threatened species legislation, e.g. the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.

At both the national and international scale, taxonomy is at the core of species-based legislation in initiatives such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), and is an essential element in the nation’s effort to maintain effective national quarantine standards.

Taxonomy and Taxonomists

In the past 30 or so years taxonomy (and systematics) has evolved into a ‘big picture science’, with the status of a modern scientific discipline. In this period there have been massive advances in phylogenetic theory, in computational capability and in our understanding of genetics and evolution, all contributing to levels of sophistication not previously practiced in this field of research.

Many taxonomists working in our universities and herbaria and museums have shaken off the reputation of being sole investigators and now recognise the efficacy of collaboration, undertaking much of their research in small integrated teams. The reality of the political role of taxonomy is acknowledged, together with recognition that the results of research need to be widely and freely available, and easy to access.

In studying any particular group of organisms, taxonomists gather information about the whole biology of the group. Their investigations cover much more than the process of naming species. The science is rigorous and detailed and assimilates information from all aspects of the biological sciences. For instance, in preparing a taxonomic treatment of a plant genus, and attempting to understand the species and relationships within, a taxonomist will incorporate information from a diversity of datasets including morphology, anatomy, chemistry, genome and DNA sequences, pollination and breeding systems, physiology (e.g. C3 or C4 metabolic pathways), ecological and geographic distributions as well as past geological history, in order to formulate sound evolutionary hypotheses and a pragmatic classification. Where individual species are the focus, information on population diversity, genetics and structure may be relevant.

Taxonomy is a dynamic science based on multiple evidence principles and involving a continuous process of incorporating new information. The outcome is new knowledge. The Flora of Australia project, a 25-year program of documenting the plant species of the continent, has led to an average 25% increase in the number of species recognised in major genera and families – and many of these newly recognised species are, as you would expect, rare or threatened, and in need of conservation action.

Delivery of taxonomic knowledge

The knowledge accumulated by taxonomic experts is disseminated in various ways and at different levels. In the sense of the CBD or of the Global Environment Facility GEF, taxonomy is a means towards implementation, serving conservation and sustainable use.

There are many examples in Australia where taxonomic experts play key roles in threatened species conservation assessment or recovery teams and in other aspects of plant conservation like species-based weed control programs. These coordinated teams of practitioners usually develop highly effective and productive collaborations with relevant and focussed outcomes for plant conservation.

Much of the increasing interest in taxonomy, including that from governments, is driven by the relevance of the data contained in a diversity of electronic resources. Electronic dissemination of information helps to catalyse, support and accelerate collaborative efforts, and to integrate taxonomy into plant conservation practices. The importance of user friendly tools from the taxonomist’s kit such as interactive keys based on serious science and with accompanying images, cannot be stressed enough.

Governmental and private industry support for nation-wide on-line databases such as the Australia’s Virtual Herbarium (AVH) and the Australian Plant Census (APC) has enabled taxonomists and biodiversity informatics workers to collaboratively deliver taxonomic information in a readily accessible format via the internet. These initiatives are indeed national activities with consensus views being developed through participation of taxonomists across all States and Territories and the Commonwealth. The integrity of these data becomes increasingly critical as they are applied to studies in conservation biology or GISanalyses of spatial and species data for conservation priority setting.

Recognising the keystone role taxonomy plays in plant conservation is one thing, but Australia’s current lack of taxonomic expertise hinders our ability to deliver relevant information at an acceptable rate. The aging workforce and recent concentration on the areas of the biological sciences perceived as being more ‘sexy’, such as molecular biology, has meant we are currently experiencing a real paucity of taxonomists with expertise on the Australian flora. Key initiatives which will partly address these issues include the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy supported Atlas of Living Australia (ALA), developing the infrastructure for information from taxon names and biological collections data through to genetic and phenotypic information, being freely available via the internet. The Commonwealth Environment Research Facilities (CERF) National Taxonomy Research hub has as its prime objective to increase taxonomic capacity within Australia, and aims to enhance the ability for taxonomists to deliver the results of their research faster, more efficiently and more effectively to a wider range of users, particularly for environmental and conservation benefit.

The articles included in this issue of Australasian Plant Conservation provide some explicit examples of the importance of integrating taxonomic knowledge into plant conservation activities. Taxonomists working in partnership with managers of biodiversity for conservation and sustainable use engender a shared sense of purpose and mutual benefit.