As illustrated in the Hall of Biodiversity of the American Museum of Natural History, New York city, the world’s biodiversity is immense. Photo: Dom Dada, Creative Commons.
Taxonomy is the science of identifying and naming organisms and then organizing them into systems of classification. The world faces a taxonomic crisis caused by the combination of the loss of biodiversity1 and severe impediments to taxonomic research.2 In 2003, the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) reacted to the taxonomic crisis by launching “Planetary Biodiversity Inventories,” a new initiative intended to remove or reduce impediments to taxonomic research. These impediments are
- insufficient taxonomic expertise
- inadequate funding for research
- isolation of resources required to complete taxonomic research
Planetary Biodiversity Inventories
Planetary Biodiversity Inventories (PBIs) are global inventories of large clades (a clade is a related group with a common ancestor) of organisms that are likely to contain many undescribed species or otherwise require major revision to complete their taxonomy. To accomplish the huge task of globally inventorying a large clade, each PBI must engage a multinational team of taxonomic experts and institutions with biological research collections.
The first competition for PBI funding was held in 2003. Four awards were made by the National Science Foundation (NSF) for the study of
- plant bugs (Miridae)
- slime molds (Eumycetozoa)
- the genus Solanum, a large genus containing nightshades, tomatoes, and related plants
- catfishes (Siluriformes)
A review of progress on one of the PBIs, the All Catfish Species Inventory, suggests that the PBI initiative is successful. Although the All Catfish Species Inventory is only in its third year, it demonstrates that providing funding to taxonomists can significantly accelerate taxonomic research, primarily by reducing the isolation of resources required to complete taxonomic research. In addition, a large number of students are working with scientists on the project and are being trained as the next generation of fish taxonomists. Following is a discussion of the catfish project, which serves to illustrate the goals, organization, and results of a PBI. The project illustrates that PBIs are an effective response to the taxonomic crisis.
All Catfish Species Inventory
The principal goal of the All Catfish Species Inventory (ACSI) is to complete the taxonomy of Siluriformes, a monophyletic order (a group of organisms that includes the ancestral species and all descendent species) of bony fishes. Tasks for completing the taxonomy include
- describing undescribed taxa (categories of organisms, such as class, genus, species)
- completing generic and familial revisions on poorly known groups
- developing identification keys
- creating regional checklists and field guides
- making all taxonomically relevant information readily available through publications and websites
Distribution of scientists and students who have participated in the All Catfish Species Inventory. Some dots represent localities with multiple participants and institutions. Numbers displayed on map show the total number of participants by continent. Graphic courtesy of Mark Sabaj.
Principal investigators on the project are Jonathan W. Armbruster at Auburn University; John P. Friel at Cornell University; John G. Lundberg and Mark H. Sabaj at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia; and Carl J. Ferraris, Jr., and Larry M. Page of the University of Florida Museum of Natural History.
Catfishes were chosen as the subject for a PBI because they are
Big Blue, a blue catfish (Ictalurus furcatus) is a popular attraction at the Tennessee Aquarium’s Nickajack Lake exhibit, weighing more than 90 pounds. Photo: Todd Stailey
- a monophyletic group3-5
- distributed worldwide6,7
Scientists predict that a large number of undescribed species, including those recognized but not scientifically described as well as species yet to be discovered, will be identified. Also important in their selection for a PBI, catfishes were already under study by a large number of taxonomists who provide the nucleus of expertise necessary to identify specimens and revise higher-level taxa. At the start of the project in 2003, 215 taxonomists and students signed on as participants. By early 2006, the number of participants signed onto the project had increased to 360. Most participants are from North America and South America (Figure 1), two regions where systematic ichthyology (the study of fishes) is an active area of scientific research. Other participants are from Asia, Africa, Europe, and Australia. Major efforts are being made to establish collaborations in Asia and Africa, where increased taxonomic research and student training are critically needed.
At the start of the project, 2,855 named species of catfishes were considered to be valid. Although this number of species is small relative to that in some groups of invertebrates (animals without a backbone), catfishes constitute one of the largest orders of vertebrates (animals with a backbone).
- One in 4 species of all freshwater fishes is a catfish.
- One in 10 species of all fishes—marine, estuarine, and freshwater—is a catfish.
- One in 20 species of all species of vertebrates is a catfish.
Even with this large number of described species, participants in 2003 estimated that 873 to 1,750 species of catfishes remain to be described. These new species are represented by specimens of recognized but still-unnamed species in institutional collections or are predicted to be discovered through additional fieldwork. The total number of species of catfishes to be recognized by the end of the project is predicted to be between 3,600 and 4,500.
ACSI has a five-year budget of $4.7 million to support taxonomic research on catfishes. Included are funds for participant workshops; fieldwork in poorly sampled regions likely to yield new species (primarily in tropical Africa, Asia, and South America); visits to museums and other institutions with biological collections or taxonomic research programs; assistance with illustrations, data analysis, and other tasks necessary to complete descriptions and revisions; and costs associated with publication.
All Catfish Species Inventory result
Increasing funding for research
Number of new species of catfishes described per year. The All Catfish Species Inventory began in 2003. Graph based on data from Carl Ferraris.
To measure the effectiveness of increasing funding for taxonomic research, the number of new species of catfish described per year was examined for the past 10 years (Figure 2). The number increased substantially in 2004 and 2005 suggesting that, although ACSI is only in its third year, providing even small increases in funding to researchers who usually lack funds can significantly accelerate taxonomic research.
Increasing taxonomic expertise To alleviate the second major impediment to taxonomic research, insufficient taxonomic expertise, a large number of students (about 65 graduate students) are working on the project and being trained as the next generation of fish taxonomists. In this effort, PBIs are supplementing another successful NSF program, Partnerships for Enhancing Expertise in Taxonomy (PEET), which prepares future generations of taxonomists by supporting taxonomists who train students to conduct monographic, or revisionary, research.8
Graduate and undergraduate students involved in ACSI receive instruction in taxonomy, phylogenetics, biogeography, and natural history. Postdoctoral associates supported by ACSI participate heavily in research and work with foreign participants. All postdoctoral associates and graduate students participate in fieldwork and become familiar with the natural history and ecology of aquatic organisms. They also participate in museum curation, species descriptions and other systematic research, and manuscript preparation.
Removing the isolation and fragmentation of resources
The third major impediment to taxonomic research, isolation and fragmentation of resources, is a long-standing problem that now can be largely overcome with the nearly universal access that scientists have to the Internet. Two resources have been created to facilitate information flow:
- The ACSI website describes and illustrates catfish diversity and provides information on projects and participants. Also posted on the website are a bibliography of all papers on the systematics (taxonomy and evolutionary relationships) of catfishes (approximately 2,550 papers) and electronic copies of many old and otherwise difficult-to-obtain articles. These resources provide researchers with instant access to references they might not know about and to papers that otherwise might be unobtainable. Digital images of catfishes are also available. By the end of 2005, images of primary types of catfishes in most major institutional collections (about two-thirds of all primary types) were available. Most of the remaining one-third, scattered among many small institutions, will be photographed by the end of 2006. These images at least enable a researcher to identify the institutions that are critical to visit and at best allows a researcher to complete a study without traveling long distances to examine specimens. Images of live and freshly captured specimens, and of unusual species, also are available to facilitate descriptions, as are online atlases of catfish morphology. The ACSI website is directly responsible for the increase in completed species descriptions and revisions of catfish genera and families.
To facilitate communication among ACSI participants, an electronic mail list server, Siluri-Net, has been established at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. The project newsletter allows ACSI participants and other qualified professionals and students to describe research projects, query participants about the availability of specimens or literature, announce opportunities for scientists to work together on fieldwork and species descriptions, and discuss educational and conservation topics related to catfishes.
Many ACSI participants advise conservation NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) and government agencies in the U.S. and abroad. For example, Lundberg and Sabaj have worked with the World Wildlife Fund and Conservation International on projects to delimit freshwater ecoregions and hotspots, and Page has identified threatened species and natural areas for The Nature Conservancy and the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.
Number of papers on catfish taxonomy published annually in Zootaxa. The All Catfish Species Inventory began in 2003. Compiled by Griffin Sheehy.
In addition to improving access to taxonomic information and communication, ACSI makes it easier for researchers to publish results of their studies. Rapid publication of species descriptions historically has been hampered by the limited availability of publication outlets, the slow rate of processing manuscripts, and high cost. This is true especially for taxonomists working in less-developed countries. In addition to providing funds to cover costs of publication, ACSI provides editorial assistance to participants who choose to publish in Zootaxa, an international electronic journal for taxonomic studies. The number of papers on catfishes published in Zootaxa has increased dramatically, from one in 2001 to 20 in 2005, following the initiation of editorial and financial assistance from ACSI (Figure 3).
ACSI has two more years to meet its original objectives; however, early signs are that it is a success. Species are being described at a faster rate, and taxonomic information previously unavailable is being published and distributed electronically. Major revisions have appeared;9,10 exciting discoveries have been announced, including the discovery of a new family of catfishes;11 and phylogenetic and diagnostic information for large clades is being published.12,13
Given the severity of the taxonomic crisis and the success of the catfish PBI, a strong case can be made for additional funding of PBIs by NSF, and PBI-like initiatives should be launched elsewhere in the world. Although it’s too early to comment on the progress of other PBI initiatives that are underway, it is expected that scientific knowledge will be greatly enhanced by the data being generated. A short time remains to document the biological diversity of our planet, and biological surveys and inventories must be a high priority for science. PBIs are a means to address that priority.
If the original estimates hold and between 873 and 1,750 new species of catfishes are described, the cost will have been between $2,700 and $5,400 per species. Completing the taxonomy, with revisions, identification keys, field guides, and websites with distributional and other information on all 4,500 species of catfish, will have been done for a cost of approximately $1,000 per species. At this rate, and if estimates of 5 million to 10 million species of organisms on Earth are correct, the cost of completing an inventory of the biodiversity of the planet will be only $5 billion to $10 billion. This is a trivial amount considering modern expenditures for the military and health care, and it would produce an unparalleled source of information about the planet Earth and its resources.
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