Finnish Museum of Natural History

Mean­ing­ful con­ser­va­tion needs tax­onomy

Comms Viikki

An annotated, digitized and imaged type specimen of a lichenized fungus Acarospora turjaënsis, stored in the Finnish Museum of Natural History (herbarium acronym H).

Species are fundamental units of life and their reliable naming and definition are critical to the scientists and managers who study and conserve biodiversity. The global taxonomic community is concerned over a proposal suggesting non-scientific governance of taxonomic changes. As a consequence, 184 taxonomists from 37 countries have written of their concerns regarding a recent proposal to radically overhaul the way in which animals and plants are named and defined.

Species conservation – including management of the plants and animals on which humans depend - requires a clear understanding of what species are and what distinguishes them from each other. Taxonomic clarity is also essential to legislation mandating which species are protected.

Also four taxonomists, Xiaolan He, Jaakko Hyvönen, Péter Poczai and Soili Stenroos, from the Finnish Museum of Natural History of the University of Helsinki joined the global initiative.

“As a corollary to Dobzhansky's famous statement made in 1973 about evolution, I would say ‘nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of taxonomy.’ Traditionally, it is by careful comparative studies of hundreds, or thousands of specimens that taxonomical hypotheses are presented. At present, data used in this field span from morphology to the level of nucleotides in order to continuously improve hypotheses about phylogenetic relationships, and to achieve more robust taxonomic classifications,” says He.

Poczai adds: "Taxonomy is very important for conservation and a well-crafted legislation is needed to keep up with taxonomic changes. Legislation practices should include mechanism, which extend protection despite such changes. A good example could be taken from CITES where specialist groups already link taxonomy and its changes with conservation."

The debated proposal, detailed in an article in the journal Nature by Stephen T. Garnett and Les Christidis’ “Taxonomy anarchy hampers conservation” argues that traditional approaches to classifying biodiversity are seriously undermining conservation efforts. They propose that, unlike other scientific disciplines where hypotheses are proposed and tested free of external governance, taxonomic hypotheses should be subject to uniform guidelines and international governance. Under their plan, non-scientists with a stake in the consequences of taxonomic change – such as lawyers, anthropologists, and sociologists – would compose an international governing body. The approach would be minimizing disruptions that arbitrary or poorly justified taxonomic changes can cause to conservation efforts.

Consequently, the global taxonomic community is concerned that non-scientific governance would decrease taxonomic precision and retard taxonomic progress when it urgently needs to be accelerated. Critics of the Garnett and Christidis’ proposal assert that because species are not fixed entities, but rather living, evolving groups of organisms, the species definition process must remain flexible and open to incorporating new data to be as precise as possible. They believe that taxonomic discovery, as with other scientific endeavors, advances most quickly and efficiently through iterative hypothesis testing, peer review, and internally refereed consensus regarding the validity of taxonomic proposals.

Biod­iversity con­ser­va­tion is a com­mon goal

Both sides of this debate agree that biodiversity conservation requires robust taxonomic research, and that lack of this research is severely impacting conservation. However, taxonomists believe that lack of external governance is not a cause of this crisis. Instead, taxonomists argue that the real problems are insufficient support for their discipline through major funding agencies and inadequate training opportunities for new practitioners. Meanwhile, existing taxonomic experts are aging, retiring and not being replaced. The shared view of the global taxonomist community is that Garnett and Christidis’ proposal to limit taxonomic freedom will only exacerbate these problems.

Currently, as species extinction is accelerating and many species ranges are declining, an estimated 85% of terrestrial and 90% of marine species remain unnamed. In a recent opinion piece published in the New York Times (, famed evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson rightly characterizes this as a major issue for humanity.

Soili Stenroos explains about the specimen on the main photo:
"This specimen, along with thousands of more in our collections, have been made available as open data with the credit of the program Global Plants Initiative, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Hundreds of specialists around the world put their effort in verifying, digitizing and imaging the type specimens to make them easily accessible for scientists - a great model of functional networking to assist taxonomic and biodiversity research."

Ori­ginal art­icle:

Taxonomy based on science is necessary for global conservation.
PLOS Biology, Published: March 14, 2018,
Scott A. Thomson, Richard L. Pyle, Shane T. Ahyong, Miguel Alonso-Zarazaga, Joe Ammirati, Juan Francisco Araya, John S. Ascher, Tracy Lynn Audisio, Valter M. Azevedo-Santos, Nicolas Bailly, William J. Baker, Michael Balke, Maxwell V. L. Barclay, Russell L. Barrett, Ricardo C. Benine, James R. M. Bickerstaff, Patrice Bouchard, Roger Bour, Thierry Bourgoin, Christopher B. Boyko, Abraham S. H. Breure, Denis J. Brothers, James W. Byng, David Campbell, Luis M. P. Ceríaco, István Cernák, Pierfilippo Cerretti, Chih-Han Chang, Soowon Cho, Joshua M. Copus, Mark J. Costello, Andras Cseh, Csaba Csuzdi, Alastair Culham, Guillermo D’Elía, Cédric d’Udekem d’Acoz, Mikhail E. Daneliya, René Dekker, Edward C. Dickinson, Timothy A. Dickinson, Peter Paul van Dijk, Klaas-Douwe B. Dijkstra, Bálint Dima, Dmitry A. Dmitriev, Leni Duistermaat, John P. Dumbacher, Wolf L. Eiserhardt, Torbjørn Ekrem, Neal L. Evenhuis, Arnaud Faille, José L. Fernández-Triana, Emile Fiesler, Mark Fishbein, Barry G. Fordham, André V. L. Freitas, Natália R. Friol, Uwe Fritz, Tobias Frøslev, Vicki A. Funk, Stephen D. Gaimari, Guilherme S. T. Garbinom, André R. S. Garraffoni, József Geml, Anthony C. Gill, Alan Gray, Felipe G. Grazziotin, Penelope Greenslade, Eliécer E. Gutiérrez, Mark S. Harvey, Cornelis J. Hazevoet, Kai He, Xiaolan He, Stephan Helfer, Kristofer M. Helgen, Anneke H. van Heteren, Francisco Hita Garcia, Norbert Holstein, Margit K. Horváth, Peter H. Hovenkamp, Wei Song Hwang, Jaakko Hyvönen, Melissa B. Islam, John B. Iverson, Michael A. Ivie, Zeehan Jaafar, Morgan D. Jackson, J. Pablo Jayat, Norman F. Johnson, Hinrich Kaiser, Bente B. Klitgård, Dániel G. Knapp, Jun-ichi Kojima, Urmas Kõljalg, Jenő Kontschán, Frank-Thorsten Krell, Irmgard Krisai-Greilhuber, Sven Kullander, Leonardo Latella, John E. Lattke, Valeria Lencioni, Gwilym P. Lewis, Marcos G. Lhano, Nathan K. Lujan, Jolanda A. Luksenburg, Jean Mariaux,Jader Marinho-Filho, Christopher J. Marshall, Jason F. Mate, Molly M. McDonough, Ellinor Michel, Vitor F. O. Miranda, Mircea-Dan Mitroiu, Jesús Molinari, Scott Monks, Abigail J. Moore, Ricardo Moratelli, Dávid Murányi, Takafumi Nakano, Svetlana Nikolaeva, John Noyes, Michael Ohl, Nora H. Oleas,Thomas Orrell, Barna Páll-Gergely,Thomas Pape, Viktor Papp, Lynne R. Parenti, David Patterson, Igor Ya. Pavlinov, Ronald H. Pine, Péter Poczai, Jefferson Prado, Divakaran Prathapan, Richard K. Rabeler, John E. Randall, Frank E. Rheindt, Anders G. J. Rhodin, Sara M. Rodríguez, D. Christopher Rogers, Fabio de O. Roque, Kevin C. Rowe, Luis A. Ruedas, Jorge Salazar-Bravo, Rodrigo B. Salvador, George Sangster, Carlos E. Sarmiento, Dmitry S. Schigel, Stefan Schmidt, Frederick W. Schueler, Hendrik Segers, Neil Snow, Pedro G. B. Souza-Dias, Riaan Stals, Soili Stenroos, R. Douglas Stone, Charles F. Sturm, Pavel Štys, Pablo Teta, Daniel C. Thomas, Robert M. Timm, Brian J. Tindall, Jonathan A. Todd, Dagmar Triebel, Antonio G. Valdecasas, Alfredo Vizzini, Maria S. Vorontsova, Jurriaan M. de Vos, Philipp Wagner, Les Watling, Alan Weakley, Francisco Welter-Schultes, Daniel Whitmore, Nicholas Wilding, Kipling Will, Jason Williams, Karen Wilson, Judith E. Winston, Wolfgang Wüster, Douglas Yanega, David K. Yeates, Hussam Zaher, Guanyang Zhang, Zhi-Qiang Zhang, Hong-Zhang Zhou.



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