Blog | 25 Oct, 2021

Supporting youth in solving the taxonomic impediment

Blog — All forms of conservation rely on taxonomy, the scientific field concerned with identifying and classification of organisms. Nowadays, the conservation field is facing a dearth of taxonomists and taxonomic knowledge opening up the possibility of “many species are going extinct before they have even been discovered.”

By James McCulloch

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Photo: James McCulloch

The careful management of sites to boost their biodiversity needs data on which species inhabit them. Species-specific conservation projects require information on what a species eats, where it lives and what it needs to breed. The IUCN Red List relies heavily on distribution data and information on population trends and distributions. All of these conservation approaches (and many more) are impossible without a first basic step: taxonomy. Yet a worldwide dearth of taxonomists and taxonomic knowledge – which has come to be known as the taxonomic impediment – means that many species are going extinct before they have even been discovered by scientists. Therefore it is more important than ever to understand how we can foster the next generation of species-saving taxonomists.

I am writing this blog post as an 18-year-old who will be starting an undergraduate degree in biology this autumn. My main interests lie in biological recording, which involves the submission of records of a wide range of organisms that I observe in my garden, my local nature reserve and often further afield. These records are channelled through recording schemes and local record centres, making their way to organisations or individuals who are able to use the data to influence conservation projects. Over several years of recording, I am closing in on a grand total of 4,000 species recorded in the UK across all taxonomic groups. Compared to the era before the internet it is easier for a young person like me to get involved with biological recording and make a meaningful difference to conservation in this way: there are many identification resources available online and a helpful network of young naturalists and conservationists on which we can draw upon for support. However, there are still numerous challenges I and other budding taxonomists face and understanding and addressing these will ensure that we can begin to bridge the vast gaps in our taxonomic knowledge. 

It is invariably the species groups which are hardest to identify which suffer most from a lack of biological recording focus. Many young naturalists and taxonomists, including me, started off their interest with a passion for birds, which are an attractive group to study due to their ubiquity, size and, often, distinctiveness. For these reasons and others, birds have benefited from a huge amount of recording. At the time of writing in August, BirdTrack, the platform used by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) to collate bird records from across the UK, had received almost six million records in 2021 alone. Compare this with the UK figures for springtails (Collembola), a group of small insect-like arthropods. There are approximately 250 springtail species found in the UK, equal to the number of breeding bird species. But the Collembola Recording Scheme only holds 15,000 British springtail records, not just for 2021 but ever since the 1800s. The BTO has a membership of 60,000, while I can count the number of UK springtail specialists on one hand. For two groups which are equally speciose and equally worthy of conservation there are clear inequalities. To start reducing these inequalities we need to remove as many challenges faced by young people interested in these understudied groups as we can. 

One of the main challenges faced by young people attempting to make inroads into difficult groups is finding experts in these taxa to offer their accumulated knowledge. In every taxonomic field there will be scientists who have faced and overcome similar challenges to those young people are currently facing, so encouraging these experts to share their experiences will produce easier routes into these fields. Springtails are another good example of this. When I first started out trying to identify springtails, the lack of expertise available meant that I often found myself floundering in complicated terminology and identification keys. This was the case despite the UK’s springtail fauna being relatively well-studied compared to many other countries, where the diversity is greater yet the number of collembologists is fewer. For a lot of these groups there is little one can do to make the available identification literature any easier to decipher, simply due to the morphological similarities between taxa. As a result, networks of specialists willing to offer their support to the next generation should be established to prevent young people from being discouraged by the task that lies ahead. 

The difficulty in deciphering jargon and negotiating identification keys is, however, irrelevant if the necessary literature is inaccessible in the first place. Even in the space of my short taxonomic career it has been excellent to see identification resources become available online for an increasing number of taxonomic groups in the UK. These include online keys for beetles and other insects, out-of-print RES handbooks in PDF format and recording scheme websites offering dedicated identification pages and online species accounts. However, the online coverage is spread far and wide, so can be difficult to find, and it is also far from complete, with the predominant alternative being the purchase of expensive books. For example, a significant proportion of the UK’s micro-moths need to be dissected to be accurately identified, yet the illustrations of these genitalia are only found in specialist volumes. Many of these volumes only cover one or a few families yet cost between £100-200 each. And with large groups such as the ichneumonid wasps, the identification literature is spread over many tens or hundreds of papers which can be hard to find, hidden behind paywalls, or both. Without the support of institutions, this is a huge barrier for young people. To solve this, the provision of identification resources online needs to be both increased and better organised so as to be easier to find without scouring the internet for access to obscure journals. 

A final main challenge involves the equipment that is needed to actually use both the literature and the advice of experts. Out of the 250 British springtail species, only a very small fraction of them can be identified without the use of a compound microscope and its accessories such as slides, coverslips, and ethanol for storage. The most difficult springtails will require a chemical to allow the setae (tiny hairs) of these 1mm-long organisms to be easily examined. The cost of all of these pieces of equipment, the microscopes in particular, will all add up and make identification and taxonomy inaccessible for the majority of the world’s young people. Preventing the development of potential future taxonomists in this way will come at an even greater cost to biodiversity conservation. Therefore grants and equipment donation schemes which allow young people to pursue their interest in taxonomy regardless of their background are much needed. 

With around 8.7 million species of organism on Earth (as a rough estimate) and at least 85% of them undescribed, it is clear that the need for taxonomists is urgent. Without encouraging a new generation of young people to become taxonomists, we risk losing it as a field altogether at the most crucial point, a time where species declines are accelerating faster and faster. The solutions to the main challenges proposed here should form a starting point for us to heal a neglected field and must be a global priority. 

James McCullochPhoto: James McCulloch
James is an 18-year-old aspiring entomologist, ecologist and taxonomist currently studying biology at the University of Oxford. One of James’ main focuses is on springtails, and has written papers and a book (being published in the near future) on his local springtail fauna in the south of England. He is soon to be a member of the Terrestrial Invertebrate Red List Authority and hopes to engage more young people in the conservation, recording, and classification of the world’s least appreciated animals.