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Taxonomy Australia's generational challenge

Taxonomy Australia is about to embark on the third step towards our vision to reinvigorate and accelerate the discovery of Australia's biodiversity, for the benefit of science, society, industry and the environment. And we need your help.

Australia teems with life. In fact, we are one of only 17 countries designated as biologically mega-diverse, countries that together account for less than 10% of the Earth’s land surface but support more than 70% of its terrestrial biodiversity.

And yet, our understanding of Australia’s biodiversity is very limited. Best estimates indicate that around 70% of the species of plants, animals, fungi and other organisms that occur in Australia have not yet been discovered, named and documented. These species, from insects to deep-sea fishes and from coral reef algae to frogs and desert reptiles, are effectively invisible—unknown and un-noticed—to conservation, science, government, industry, and society.

The recent Global Assessment from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) provided a headline figure that 1 million species are currently threatened with extinction globally. Less well-known is the fact that most of these species have not yet been discovered and named. Their extinction will be invisible—we may never know we have lost them, or they may be discovered and named from museum specimens long after they have been driven to extinction.

Amongst these ‘invisible extinctions’ are likely to be species that could have led to cures for serious and emerging diseases, helped sustain our ecosystems, agriculture and food security, enabled new industries and helped support existing ones, and helped manage existing, new and emerging threats such as pathogens, pests or diseases as our environment changes.

While the discovery and naming of species is not a complete solution to the extinction crisis, it’s an important part of a package of actions to deal with it. We cannot adequately manage or reduce extinctions if we don't even have the most basic knowledge—what species are likely to become extinct.

So what can we do?

Our first step was to come together to envision the future. The result was Discovering Biodiversity: a decadal plan for taxonomy and biosystematics in Australia and New Zealand 2018–2027.

Our second step was to establish Taxonomy Australia. Taxonomy Australia is working to enhance the profile and visibility of taxonomy and biosystematics in Australia, to position them as modern, effective and impactful sciences, and to develop the messaging required to effectively communicate the vision of the decadal plan.

Our third step? To launch a generational program to discover, document and name all remaining Australian species in a generation.

In nearly 250 years of taxonomy in Australia, almost 200,000 species of terrestrial and marine plants, animals, fungi and other organisms have been discovered, scientifically documented, and named. Taxonomists estimate that more than twice this number—over 400,000 species—remain undiscovered, un-named and undocumented.

Currently, around 1000 new species are discovered and named in Australia every year. This may seem like a lot, but at this rate it will take four centuries to discover and name all Australian species. This is too slow given the urgency of the extinction crisis.

There are two core and inter-related reasons for this problem. Firstly, there are too few taxonomists in Australia. Many large and important taxonomic groups, such as fungi, many insect groups, and many marine and terrestrial invertebrates, have very few or no active and skilled taxonomists. This is the result of many decades of inadequate investment from government, industry and society in taxonomy and taxonomic institutions.

Secondly, taxonomic work practices are too slow. Taxonomy has a deep and rich tradition, and while this is a strength it can also be a weakness. While taxonomists are always early adopters of new technologies, the combination of tradition and inadequate resourcing means that taxonomists have not yet fully deployed opportunities from new technologies available today and that will develop further in the near future.

To bring the current estimate of four centuries for a full documentation of Australia’s biodiversity down to a generation—25 years, an appropriate timeframe given the urgency of the extinction crisis—will require a 16-fold increase in the rate at which new species are discovered, documented, and named.

This is the heart of the decadal plan. The first strategic action recommended by that plan, Strategic Action 1.1, aims to do just this, and all the other strategic actions support and seek to enable this core goal.

Our challenge now, as a community of taxonomists, stakeholders and supporters, is to map out exactly how we can achieve this grand goal, one of the most important scientific challenges of our generation, and to become the first biologically mega-diverse nation on Earth to document all its biodiversity, for the benefit of all.

At Taxonomy Australia, we believe that such a daring scientific program is possible. The tools and technologies exist, from machine learning and supercomputing to high-throughput genomics and a hyper-connected world, that will be necessary to achieve it. We have the strategic framework in the form of the decadal plan and Taxonomy Australia. We have highly skilled a dedicated taxonomists, and the capability to train many more.

We just need to figure out exactly how to do it, then build support for the necessary investment.

In the next weeks and months Taxonomy Australia will focus on these issues. We are seeking funding for a series of national meetings to map out the technological path to this goal. We are investigating how to develop a budget for such a large science program. And we are planning an advocacy campaign to seek funding support for it.

So what do we need from you?

Two things. First, we all need to put our thinking caps on. How do you think we as a community should approach this generational challenge? What are the key technologies and how should they be used? How should we balance new approaches with traditional ones? How on Earth do we do this?

Secondly, we need to build support for taxonomy in Australia. Once we know how to do this, we need to advocate for substantial funding. One way to build supporters and connect them is by increasing the membership of Taxonomy Australia.

So - put your thinking caps on, and connect your colleagues to Taxonomy Australia, so we can share their wisdom, insights and support (and perhaps even some crazy ideas).

This is our challenge.

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1 Comment

Eddie Tsyrlin
Eddie Tsyrlin
Mar 09, 2023

We can do this with DNA metabarcoding. Even if a species is not formally described yet, we can identify it as a separate genetic entity.

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