Taxonomy and the future
With around 70% of Australia's biodiversity still undiscovered and unnamed, there is much for taxonomists to do.
At first, the prospect may seem daunting. Nearly 250 years of taxonomic exploration and discovery in Australia has led to 30% of species being documented. Taxonomists currently discover and name around 2,500 new species per year, at which rate it will take around 400 years to document the rest.
So, is it possible and feasible to discover and name all of Australia's species in a reasonable time frame?
Fortunately, the answer is yes. With technologies available today, and with a will and sufficient resources, taxonomists estimate that it will be possible to effectively document all of Australia's species in a generation.
Australian biodiversity is more accessible than ever before, from remote regions of northern Australia to Antarctica and our surrounding oceans
There are more opportunities to sample the biodiversity of Australia and its surrounding oceans now than ever before. Research field work, sampling for environmental assessments and monitoring, and nature-based tourism all mean that many areas previously considered remote are now visited regularly. And in our marine territorial and Antarctic waters, the new CSIRO research vessels RV Investigator and RSV Nuyina are allowing unprecedented access to remote oceans, seamounts and seabeds that are often rich with new biodiversity.
RV Investigator, CSIRO's new state-of-the-art research vessel for exploring the biodiversity of Australia's oceans and seabed.
But while collecting new specimens of new species is important, it is likely that most undocumented species have already been collected. The Australian National Biodiversity Collection – all the specimens in all the museums and herbaria in Australia – houses around 70 million scientific specimens covering the breadth of our biodiversity. Many of those specimens, while collected and preserved, have never been adequately studied, and many represent unnamed species. Indeed, most of the undiscovered species in Australia are probably already in our collections, simply waiting for enough time and resources for taxonomists to study, resolve and name them.
The Australian National Insect Collection at CSIRO in Canberra. Many un-discovered species of insects have already been collected and are stored in collections such as these, awaiting taxonomic study
And, whether collected afresh on an expedition or preserved in a biodiversity collection for decades, all these specimens can be studied using methods that are more powerful than ever, and growing in power every year. From high-resolution digital imaging and 3-dimensional X-ray scanning to whole-genome and high-throughput DNA sequencing, the specimens in our collection are an unparalleled scientific resource and infrastructure.
The discovery and detection of species could be revolutionised by sequencing the minute traces of DNA they leave in their environment (eDNA). However, the promise of eDNA is currently limited by a lack of comprehensive libraries of sequences of known species that can be used to identify eDNA samples, and by the poor taxonomic knowledge of megadiverse groups such as fungi, nematodes and bacteria.
With sufficient resourcing, largely using available collections and deploying the most current available and future technologies, taxonomists estimate that it will be possible to document Australia's biodiversity in a generation.
There has never been a more exciting time to do taxonomy. There has never been more urgency to taxonomically document the Earth's biodiversity. And there has never before been the vision and strategy to bring our taxonomists, our collections and our technology together to discover all of Australia's species in a generation.