Want to know whether that fruit fly is a dangerous new import? Or if the mussel you are about to eat has been feeding on toxic microalgae? Or what organisms are attached to the bottom of that boat? Call your local taxonomist. The trouble is, the few there are don’t get to spend much time actually doing taxonomic research. A new Royal Society of New Zealand report released this week highlights the underfunding of this crucial area. The National Taxonomic Collections of New Zealand panel convener Professor Wendy Nelson FRSNZ fills us in on the problems we could face, if underfunding continues.
The report says New Zealand taxonomic collections contain about 10 million invertebrate specimens. Why so many?
Invertebrate groups are very numerous – and occupy a huge range of habitats from the deepest ocean floor to mountain tops, including in soils, waters, forests, as well as in urban environments. We still have a lot to learn – for example, about 70% of New Zealand arthropods remain undescribed. While some of the invertebrates in our collections are foreign, by far and away the bulk of these collections will be collected from New Zealand.
People often ask “why do you need to keep so many specimens?” – you need a range of specimens to understand different stages, to see if species look different in their juvenile and adult stages, if they look different when growing at the coast or halfway up a mountain, or in different seasons. The collections also provide a record of the physical distribution of species – their geographical range as well as ecological range.
So there’s a lot that we don’t know?
Yes – in New Zealand we are still in a discovery phase. Species discovery, description and classification are still a big part of taxonomic research in New Zealand. Field collecting programmes and specimen acquisition are important activities – about 15% of vascular plants are not yet described, and about 80% of New Zealand’s biota found in the sea yet only approximately 1% of our marine domain has been explored so far.
What’s the worst that could happen, if species are not correctly identified?
The most urgent failures would affect food safety and biosecurity. For example if a fruit fly is discovered at Auckland airport, do we have the capability to distinguish that fruit fly from other fruit flies? Is it a fruit fly that is already present in New Zealand – or is it one that will pose a very serious risk for New Zealand horticulture?
Another example would be checking for the presence of toxic algae in our shellfish exports. New Zealand has $1.5 billion worth of seafood exports, and it is critical that this food is safe and our reputation for safety is maintained. Some toxic algae have the potential to kill – so this is a very serious issue.
Weeds and pests cost New Zealand a great deal of money, affecting the economy, the environment, human health and cultural values. To have an effective biosecurity system we need to be able to distinguish native from non-native species – and we need also to be able to evaluate the risks that particular weeds and pests may pose so there can be rapid and decisive action if required. All this rests on having authoritative names and accurate identifications – and this requires the underpinning taxonomic knowledge.
In New Zealand we have very modest numbers of people working in taxonomy, and, in addition, people that are expert taxonomists are funded for a very small proportion of their time to do the work. Most publicly-funded taxonomists can only spend less than a quarter of their time on taxonomy research.
There are systems issues to tackle too. Museums, universities and Crown Research Institutes all receive funding from different sources. Funding is frequently on short time cycles. The key stakeholders/end-users and the beneficiaries of taxonomic research are not well connected with the funding processes, and there’s no place where thinking about New Zealand as a whole happens.
The biological collections that support taxonomy are heritage assets as well as scientific assets – starting with the specimens collected on Captain Cook’s first voyage to New Zealand.
Are specimens and taxonomists at risk?
Absence of national-scale oversight means that the collections and the staff are vulnerable to individual institutional policy changes and priorities – and in addition the declining funding is placing severe constraints on organisations. For example, in the past six years Landcare Research has lost around 12 taxonomy and collections staff through redundancies, reduced hours, and non-replacement of staff. For the Cawthron Institute current funding only allows the successful care and maintenance of a fixed number of living microalgal species. If they discover new taxa and want to retain them then they have to get rid of existing cultures. Recent research on toxic algae that may be able to survive in New Zealand waters because of climate change has forced Cawthron to be selective and cull some strains – while continuing to underpin seafood safety research. The NIWA Invertebrate Collection has been closed in successive years for one month each year to conserve and manage funds. Retiring taxonomists have not been replaced as the proportion of individual scientists’ time funded from taxonomic programmes is insufficient to make a case for staff recruitment.
What could you do with more funding?
There are some fantastic opportunities with new approaches for analysing data, for sharing information, for databasing and digitising collections.
For example, Landcare Research has applied some new metrics and analytical tools to interrogate databases – to look at spatial data and examine where hot spots of endemism occur, where threatened species are distributed – and compare these distributions with where there are protected areas, or reserves. This approach helps to identify important areas of endemism for conservation prioritisation, planning and management and environmental reporting. It can tell us where we should be focusing our conservation efforts in a cost effective way.
But the fundamentals need to be sorted out. We need to stop the erosion of capacity through redundancies and retrenchments. There’s a lot of really exciting things we could do in the future if we could just get our house in order first –for example, coordination of taxonomic research and collection policies across institutional boundaries for better outcomes for New Zealand, investing in taxonomy and collections so that there are sufficient resources to meet New Zealand’s needs, (e.g. to get backlogs of specimens databased, to enable data to be shared), to improve the level of legal protection for collections, and to support and enhance opportunities for training to ensure New Zealand has a strong and expert taxonomic workforce.
The title image was taken by Roberta D’Archino, NIWA.
These interviews are supported by the Royal Society of New Zealand, which promotes, invests in and celebrates excellence in people and ideas, for the benefit of all New Zealanders.