Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Turbo taxonomy

The taxonomic impediment has been recognized as a major obstacle to biodiversity research for the past two decades and the foreseeable future. A world-wide shortage of important taxonomic information, gaps in our current taxonomic knowledge despite over 200 years of intensive work, and the shortage of trained taxonomists and curators are the key characteristics of the problem. Numerous remedies were proposed over the last years but no significant progress in terms of formal species descriptions, nor a minimum standard for descriptions have been achieved so far.
Not long ago the term "turbo-taxonomy" was coined for an approach combining DNA Barcodes, concise morphological descriptions by an expert taxonomist, and high-resolution digital imaging to streamline the formal description of larger numbers of new species. This strategy could perhaps represent a big step forward when it comes to close the gaps of our taxonomic knowledge faster than at the current speed.
Building on this a group of German and Japanese researchers now propose a procedure which, together with open access web-publication and automated content transfer from journal into a wiki, may create the a very efficient and sustainable way to conduct taxonomy in the future. Descriptions initially highly concise could be gradually updated or modified in the fully versioned wiki-framework.
This means that the visibility of additional data is not compromised, while the original species description -the first version- remains preserved in the wiki, and of course in the journal version. A DNA sequence database with an identification engine aka BOLD could replace the classic identification key, but also helps to avoid synonyms. All the work researchers have been doing with BOLD has demonstrated already that it has the potential to detect grossly incorrect taxonomic placements.
The group goes on and demonstrates what they had in mind by presenting a species-description pipeline in which they named 101 new species of the hyperdiverse genusTrigonopterus (weevils from New Guinea). In another paper they describe the advantages of their approach for community ecology studies.
Three papers that represent a large body of work but also a nice compendium on fast track integrative taxonomy. I let the authors have the last word as they clearly name the advantages an adoption by the community at large would have:
Fast track taxonomy will not only increase speed, but also sustainability of global species inventories. It will be of great practical value to all the other disciplines that depend on a usable taxonomy and will change our perception of global biodiversity. While this approach is certainly not suitable for all taxa alike, it is the tool that will help to tackle many hyperdiverse groups and pave the road for more sustainable comparative studies, e.g. in community ecology, phylogeography and large scale biogeographic studies.


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