Naming the nameless
Correctly naming an organism is fundamental – it is important for all subsequent studies on that species and yet a significant percentage of Australian marine species have not been described. Our scientists explain why we must name the nameless!
Researchers at the Australian Museum have collated a position statement with the Australian Marine Sciences Association (AMSA) calling for action amongst the entire scientific community to acknowledge the critical importance of taxonomy, which documents the building blocks of communities.
Australia is lagging behind other developed countries in understanding its unique biological diversity. Australian marine waters are larger than the area of Australia’s land mass and most of the biota these waters remain unexplored. Concerningly, there is a dramatic loss of taxonomic expertise, and funding for taxonomy is declining in Australia. Not knowing the species present in an ecosystem has critical implications for the management of marine resources including environmental, economic and social impacts related to monitoring, conservation, invasive species control and bioprospecting.
The scientific name of a species is like an ID card, which unlocks all the available data on that species. Each species has its own unique ecology, reproductive strategies, larval development, physiology and feeding habits. By giving an animal the wrong name (e.g. naming two similar species under one species name), you are losing valuable information attached to that name. Species occurrence data is becoming easier to find by searching various online databases such as Atlas of Living Australia (ALA), but what happens if that data is wrong? The error multiplies throughout the scientific literature and is difficult to correct.
The importance of taxonomy to marine science was the topic of a symposium at a recent national AMSA conference, held virtually from 29 June to 2 July 2021. Following the symposium, we prepared a position statement which includes a series of recommendations to understand the need for taxonomic expertise. These must be implemented by end-users of taxonomy including ecologists, conservationists, pest managers, marine park managers, ecological and environmental consultants, amateur naturalists, bioprospectors and taxonomists themselves to deliver our national and international policy commitments such as the control of invasive species, protection, enhancement of biodiversity and functioning of ecosystems.
In the position statement, we developed several example boxes on different marine taxa to highlight the issues of incorrect identifications which have management and economic consequences. One example box details the Crown-of-thorns starfish, where the identification of the species on the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is still not resolved, yet millions of Australian dollars have been spent trying to control it. Another example box deals with sea cucumbers of the Order Aspidochirotida, these are harvested globally for the high value bêche-de-mer product (dried body wall) largely for the Chinese luxury sea food market. After having resolved the taxonomy of these valuable species, two of the most endangered species were finally listed by CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). This has had major ramifications for the fishery of these species on the GBR and our ability to export these species to southeast Asia, which has triggered federal intervention.
We encourage colleagues, students and anyone with an interest in taxonomy to read and disseminate AMSA’s position statement on the importance of taxonomy to progress the enhancement of funding for taxonomic studies and highlight its critical importance.
Dr Laetitia Gunton, Technical Officer Digitisation, Marine Invertebrates, Australian Museum.
Dr Pat Hutchings, Senior Fellow, Marine Invertebrates, Australian Museum.
- Hutchings, P. and Zanol, J. 2019. Blood worms – more diverse than fishes can tell. Australian Museum blog.
- AMSA Position Statements: https://www.amsa.asn.au/position-statements