Published: 29.04.10
Science - Dossier on Biodiversity

Taxonomists an endangered species

Despite all the talk of biodiversity and its protection, taxonomy - the scientific classification and differentiation of species - is in crisis at universities. However, it forms an important basis for biology and especially ecology, not to mention the protection of diversity.

Peter Rüegg
If it wasn’t for taxonomy, these insects would be nameless creatures: this Triorla interrupta (robber fly) has bagged himself a Plathemis lydia (dragonfly). (Photo: Thomas Shahan, flickr)
If it wasn’t for taxonomy, these insects would be nameless creatures: this Triorla interrupta (robber fly) has bagged himself a Plathemis lydia (dragonfly). (Photo: Thomas Shahan, flickr) (large view)

Andreas Müller is a specialist; he practically knows Switzerland’s 600 species of wild bee off by heart. Reinhard Berndt also has a research specialty: rust fungi – parasitic fungi that live in plants. And Matthias Baltisberger is a professor of botany who knows the majority of Switzerland’s 3000 plants inside out. Even though they deal with extremely different organisms, the three researchers from ETH Zurich have one thing in common: they all work in a branch of science that is barely supported nationally or internationally any more: taxonomy.

Taxonomists: researchers who classify and differentiate species, and name the systematic units – the so-called taxa. Taxonomy is a sub-domain of systematics. “And unfortunately the term has negative associations”, says Müller. Too old-fashioned and destitute, say other biologists; not scientific enough for the publishers of major journals and many universities, and therefore also those who dish out the research funds. The upshot of it all is that the art of taxonomy is going the way of the dodo.

Shortage of funds

After all, taxonomy is not exactly a “quick” science. It takes time – maybe even years – to clarify whether or not a species has already been classified; it might be in a collection under a different name, for instance, just waiting to be compared with the “new” species. Müller has over 100 unclassified bees from Southern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East alone in his collection, waiting for when he can finally find the time to classify them and give them a scientific name. Taxonomic expertise is slow in coming; the research time-consuming and unspectacular. Monographs of single genera and families are published – books that are often the authors’ lifework.

That stands out like a blot on the scientific landscape. “These days, DNA has to be involved in scientific projects or else you don’t get into the high-impact journals”, says Matthias Baltisberger, an adjunct professor of botany at the Institute of Integrative Biology. The outcome: research has abandoned taxonomy, which is still highly morphological, in favor of molecular and biotechnology fields.

Another branch of systematics has thrived from this: phylogeny (the evolutionary history of genera, families, categories etc.) “This particular branch of research is booming”, says Müller. Since molecular genetics began to play an increasingly big role in evolutionary issues, the results from phylogeny have also been published in Science. The classification and differentiation of species on the other hand is not deemed sexy enough and the major publishers just aren’t interested.

Berndt refuses to accept this. It takes years to appropriate taxonomical and species knowledge, whatever the division. Only someone who has acquired these skills can discover new species. “This involves major intellectual input and is many years in the making.”

Situation at ETH Zurich still comfortable

Compared to other Swiss universities, the situation still looks rosy for taxonomy at ETH Zurich.

Apart from the insect collection, the university also has a mycological collection and a herbarium, which serve as an archive and tools for taxonomists. “The collections are also archives for biodiversity – priceless, irreplaceable treasures”, says Berndt. Müller adds, “Today, ETH Zurich is the only university in Switzerland to fund a noteworthy entomological collection, and it is used intensively by researchers from all over the country and abroad.”

Nevertheless, for the most part taxonomical research has shifted to the museums. Berndt has also noticed a move in scientific research on fungi away from universities towards the layman. After all, it was amateur mycologists who brought out the five-volume work Die Pilze der Schweiz.

Whilst amateurs often make terrific and very active taxonomists, they often only really know about edible macrofungi. And they are less familiar with scientific methods. For instance, their findings are often poorly documented and therefore of no scientific use. “You can’t understand the immigration or spread of a new species of fungus like that”, says Berndt.

The demise of classical mycology in Switzerland (and abroad) is unprecedented. Chairs and professorships that used to conduct research on classical mycology weren’t re-staffed after the professors retired or other specialties approved. Today, systematic mycology at universities is almost extinct. “And last year the Swiss Mycological Society finally hung up its magnifying glass once and for all; there just wasn’t the new talent coming through”, regrets Berndt.

For Matthias Baltisberger, the fact that taxonomy is in crisis is nothing new, however. The last large-scale university botany project was initiated and carried out almost 60 years ago, back when ETH-Zurich professor Hans Ernst Hess was working on Flora der Schweiz und angrenzender Gebiete – a monograph of Switzerland’s ferns and flowering plants. The project took 16 years, during which time Hess published nothing. The three-volume book was supposed to be his life’s work, but he never managed the leap into the “normal” publication competition.

Taxonomists a rare breed

Education is also suffering from the dwindling appreciation of taxonomy. “In this discipline, education receives even less support than research”, says Baltisberger. There is neither the staff to teach species identification nor the space on the timetables to fit it in. “In order to supervise the students on field trips you need a lot of teaching assistants, and we keep having to fight to get them; and with student numbers rocketing in biology and pharmaceutics, whether there’ll be enough money this year is still up in the air.”

ETH Zurich still has a good excursion tradition. On botanical field trips, for example, biology, pharmaceutics, and environmental and agricultural science students learn hundreds of plant species. In the long run, however, these excursions don’t remedy the lack of taxonomists.

It’s a vicious circle: without species identification it’s impossible to conduct taxonomical studies. The taxonomical crisis is also having a knock-on effect in ecology and ultimately biology. If someone wants to study the evolutively important interdependency of bees and flowering plants, for example, you need to know all the species like the back of your hand first. “If we don’t name the organisms, you can forget further research”, says insect specialist Müller.

In the meantime, there are various initiatives designed to alter the course of the taxonomical crisis. For instance, publications on taxonomy are to be accredited a higher impact factor than before. Furthermore, the FOEN, which doesn’t have enough specialists to conduct Switzerland’s biodiversity monitoring, is also looking to promote species identification. The Federal Office has also commissioned the SANU in Biel to draft measures to encourage and train taxonomists.

Andreas Müller knows that this is easier said than done, but not impossible. In his crash course, students are instructed how to deal with dragonflies and get to know species. After some initial hesitation and even indifference, many develop a curiosity – and species expertise. “An ecological and evolutive issue, the differentiation of the numerous habitat specialists sparks an ambition in many students to learn the dragonfly species’ full names”, says Müller.

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