Our Discovery Mission
Our mission, should we choose to accept it, is to discover and document all remaining Australian species of plants, animals, fungi and other organisms ... in a generation.
Part 3 - Whiteboards
The ideas below have been contributed to the whiteboard for discussion during the roundtable breakouts. You can add to them on the Whiteboard ideas page
Roundtable 2: How can we most effectively use morphology for our mission?
Morphology obviously has a long history in species delimitation and discovery, but is being challenged now by DNA sequencing as a primary tool in some taxonomic groups. Some taxonomists support morphological-only taxonomy while other support DNA-only taxonomy. This roundtable will consider issues around morphology, including:
Why exactly does morphology remain important in this age of genetics and genomics?
Are we able to identify any taxonomic groups where we can say that morphology basically doesn't matter?
How can we improve the capture, handling and use of morphological (trait) information in the service of our mission?
Today’s greater appreciation of the genetics/phylogeography of species groups places much greater standards on what is needed to circumvent a species, especially for publishing papers to impress. From paleontology, I am trying to interest workers is accepting also another (lower) layer of taxonomic activity in which distinctive (diagnostic) phena (in Mayr’s usage) are documented much more quickly and with much less circumvention (but still provisionally within the current species-level phylogenteic framework). The "documentation" of these might correspond to Volker Framenau’s pre-Linnean stage of "documentation". These phena are simply distinctively useful, usually conspecific (infraspecific), things - so they do not correspond to "morphospecies" (usually encompassing multiple species that are poorly understood or cryptic).All the whiteboards present handy ideas to make info more accessible. To add to that, how about we enliven taxonomic info by routinely incorporatiing it into databases which can project the info graphically? For example, I have been doing that via pop-ups attached to digital phylogenetic trees
Molecular techniques are incredibly useful for species delimitation and other uses, but for the most part our end users such as diagnosticians are still using morphology, at least as their first and primary method and often the only one. Combining the two allows for increasing the power of morphology, by showing the taxonomist which characters are stable vs. variable, associating polymorphic sexes and life stages, etc.
- Morphology is a valuable tool kit for those that cannot afford molecular sequencing techniques. Hence, if we can find molecular characters that can delineate a species based on molecular work, then this becomes an essential tool for different disciplines that may not afford or have the time to carry out molecular work. However, sometimes there are no clear morphological characters, and molecular sequences may become the only discriminating factor. This can be apparent in cryptic species within certain scleractinian groups.
- More training workshops for the statistical analysis of morphological characters would be ideal, especially for postgraduate students. With the new age of molecular work, there is a strong focus on analysing molecular work and plenty of support. However, I feel the basic training of fundamental morphological analysis is not being communicated, and skills are not being funnelled through to the new generation of taxonomists. It is challenging to obtain help in the statistical morphological analysis, and a published review paper does not provide all the answers.
- Improving and capturing of morphological trait data will be beneficial if there is a clear understanding from the junior researcher who investigates the taxa group. There is an array of morphological character jargon. For my marine invertebrate taxa group there is no clear definition for certain characters (different sources uses differing definitions and terms). I have noticed various descriptor definitions used in historical documents (original descriptions) have changed once followed through to current publications, with no clear definition in that new publication. Sometimes this is because terms are lost in translation (French to English). Sometimes this is based on a lack of referencing to an associated morphological trait.
Molecular taxonomy in sponges is indicating that our morphological characters need to be expanded to include more or different characters, including more cytological characters, which calls for easier access to histology/SEM/TEM facilities - towards making it easier to have a more integrated taxonomic approach.
As a field biologist who regularly undertakes ecological studies (of hard corals) being able to identify species in the field, based on macro-morphological characters is vital.
A point that is often missed (in corals) is that many morphological characters and character states have remained stable throughout the fossil record so, morphology often gets a bad rap as being 'plastic' but this appears to be an over-generalization.
Many museum collections are full of specimens that are in great shape in terms of morphology but can't be used for DNA. Morphological comparisons can be important for linking specimens and historical collection records to recently collected specimens with available DNA, even if the link that is made is somewhat tenuous.
I think dissemination of approaches to rapidly collect high-quality morphological data including inexpensive approaches for focal stacking and beginner guides to macrophotography and microphotograhy would be valuable contributions.
If the aim is to describe (I'd prefere the term 'document') all species within a generation, the question at the moment should probably be: What are the groups for which morphology is sufficient and, assuming we are not diagnosing a species by COI (or any other) barcode alone, how can we speed up their purely morphological description? For these, barcoding would at this stage, add little to their documentation.
For those who looked at Mark Harvey's presentation, and I fully agree with him, spiders can largely be documented based on morphology alone and this applies to my pet groups, wolf spiders and orb-weaving spiders. I have sorted many Australian collections to morphospecies in this group and databased those morphospecies, and the bottleneck now is their publication.
I think we should get away from the traditional 'species description' to an online species 'documentation' that, however, includes critical elements of 'type material' and 'peer review'. Such an online system (possibly through the ALA?) would allow a rapid online dissemination of new species that is then available to all usergroups. There is no reason not to subsequently publish Linnean taxonomy for these.
Online dissemination would also allow engagement of citizens who can then judge if they found a new species or not.
So speeding up the taxonomic process for morphologically diagnosable groups needs to address the bottleneck 'publication'.
I work on a poorly known ancient insect group (silverfish) where there is very limited taxonomic expertise available worldwide (maybe five part time people only one of whom has molecular skills). Most are retired or will soon retire. I fortunately have limited access to molecular resources and experience at the Australian Museum. Some of the world's type material has either been lost over the years or else preserved in 70% ethanol for decades and not ammenable to DNA extraction at least by methods available to me.
The two studies I have conducted comparing morphology to molecular phylogeny are suggesting much wider ranges in COI and 28S within a morphospecies than in more recent groups. The future clearly lies with molecular taxonomy because it takes too long to acquire broad morphology skills (10+ years). We need to either encourage more morphology (unlikely for such unloved animal groups) or else prioritise correlation of existing morphological species with molecular data. This would have to happen early in the project because of the age of current morphologists and would require efforts to either collect neotypes/topotypes or else advanced molecular techniques that can extract good quality sequence data from old, alcohol/water stored specimens.
I believe that the only hope for morphology as a future taxonomic tool would be for methods to be developed that can rapidly scan entire silverfish specimens (in their thousands and without much perparatory work) and for articifical intelligence techniques to sort/ describe resulting morphosecies.
More (or better) ideas? Add them here.