Direct action

A suburban mall, 2 pm. Mothers and grandmothers sit chatting in the shade. Toddlers squat together in a sandbox, their sun-hats almost touching. The lunchtime business crowd has gone back to their offices. A waiter wipes down the vacant outside tables and pushes chairs back into place. A white ibis (Threskiornis molucca) perches on the rim of a rubbish bin.

Inside the Café Vittoria, a young woman in sunglasses sits with a latte, idly flipping the pages of a magazine. She's been waiting half an hour and is running out of patience. The candle stub she's brought with her is burning low in an ashtray on the table. She wonders if she has another in her handbag.

Into the café sweeps an older woman, smiling and laden with shopping bags. Looking around the café, she spots the candle-lit table and bustles over, dumping her bags on and under the table's empty chairs.

"Whoosh!" she says, sitting down to face the younger woman. "Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny."

"But morphospace is boundless," replies the other, coolly.

Passwords having been exchanged, the women shake hands and murmur "Luz" in unison. Thus begins another clandestine meeting of agents from the League of Unemployed Zoologists, LUZ, whose acronym means "light" in Spanish and whose emblem, the candle, symbolises the vulnerability of zoological knowledge.

"Life in Sydney has been good to you, I see", remarks the younger woman with a hint of sarcasm, nodding towards the shopping bags.

"They're empty boxes in those bags, sweetie", replies the other. "Part of my disguise. What's your UID? I'm Patiriella, Marine Section."

"So I was told. Austrochorema, Freshwater. You're late."

"Not by much. What do you have from Melbourne?"

Austrochorema sips her latte. "A little. Our colleague at Museums Victoria slipped a plea for donations into a squid being loaned to the Smithsonian."

"Really? Which part of the squid?"

The younger woman frowns. "Can we please stick to business?"

A waiter heads their way. "I'll have a long black," calls Patiriella, and the waiter retreats. "Sorry. Anything out of La Trobe?"

"Nothing good,'" replies Austrochorema. "The School of Life Sciences got wound up. Long-contract staff are going into the new Department of Resources, Econometrics and Accountancy Development.'

"A fitting acronym," observes Patiriella. "I don't suppose they'll be offering anything on invertebrates."

"Hardly. Listen!" Austrochorema leans forward, suddenly animated, speaking in a fast whisper. "There's a plan out of Edith Cowan. Do you remember the Bogong Incident, when millions of moths invaded Parliament House in Canberra?"

The conversation is interrupted by the arrival of the coffee.

"Of course," replies Patiriella, when the waiter is out of earshot. "How could I forget? Insects in the newspapers for days, ANIC footage on the TV news."

"This is bigger. Breeding colonies have been established at secret locations near Albany and two more are planned for the Launceston area."

"What is it? Another moth?"

"We aren't to know. There are hints, though. Conventional poisons won't help. The only way to control these things will be with an attractant, a pheromone tailored to this one, genetically modified disrupter."

Patiriella sighs. "I don't know. Terrorism seems so...extreme."

"This isn't terrorism," enthuses Austrochorema. "It's direct action. The Commonwealth just needs to be reminded of the importance of zoological expertise. Pheromone traps will be activated when our demands are met: full restoration of zoology faculties and courses at universities across Australia, return of ABRS funding to CPI-indexed 2015 levels, guest spots for soil zoologists on the ABC-TV gardening program..."

"I know, I've read the manifesto. But can we trust the bastards?"

Austrochorema smirks. "They'll keep their promises this time. If they want the beaches to be safe."

Patiriella's eyes widen. "I've heard nothing about this! And I'm in Marine Section!"

The younger woman breathes gently on the candle between them. For a moment, the flame grows. "We have friends overseas, Patiriella."

(To be continued, unless the Decadal Plan reverses the trends. If not... luz.)

Taxonomy 2028 Challenge: Let’s digitally image poorly known described species and undescribed species in an Australian Biodiversity Portal – the end-users perspective

by Volker W. Framenau (Perth)

I am an invertebrate scientist publishing taxonomic and systematic studies predominantly on spiders. I am also an environmental practitioner conducting invertebrate surveys in Western Australia trying to identify spiders from often poorly sampled, remote regions.

I am therefore as much a taxonomist as I am an end-user. I am familiar with the taxonomic literature of described species in my area of expertise (and some other invertebrate groups such as millipedes and ants) and have little problems to identify species that had a very recent taxonomic treatment and for which biodiversity and distribution data is readily available (i.e. through identifies specimens in collections published in the Atlas of Living Australia).

What I need, as expert end-user, is a system that helps me identify a species that is not properly illustrated (i.e. historically named, but with poor original description) and those that are undescribed.

As end-user trying to protect rare species, I don’t need a Linnaean name for this, but I need to know if a species is potentially rare or widespread, which determines if it is subject to an environmental assessment or not. In Western Australia, a species does not have to be named scientifically to be protected by the Wildlife Conservation Act.

Imagine, I could find images of all undescribed and poorly described species online, with diagnostic images, i.e. all pedipalps of male spiders in ventral view for a family or genus side-by-side? Apply the ‘retrolateral’ filter, and then I get them all in a different view for identification. Or images of heads of undescribed ants of a genus side by side? Impossible by 2028? Of course not!

Check out  and you can find thousands of images of ants (described and undescribed, the latter with morphocodes), can filter by bioregion, taxonomy and morphological view. Or closer to home, check out the Barrow Island QIM ( funded by Chevron Australia as part of its biosecurity efforts for its Gorgon Project, that illustrates in access of 2,000 terrestrial invertebrate species, many with morphospecies codes. I have used this resource excessively for identifications of spiders and ants in the nearby Pilbara. Imagine a Barrow Island QIM for the whole of Australia, just better!

This of course will not work for all taxa, some cannot be easily identified by images alone, but for many it will work, as long as species-specific images are being presented (here the Barrow Island QIM falls short, at least for spiders).

There are three main elements that need to be developed for this:

  1. The database structure and gallery type web-design with appropriate filters for images that are meta-tagged for these filters.
  2. An Australia-wide pseudotaxonomic/morphospecies framework for undescribed species with unique species identifiers. This can be modelled on the Linnaean system, i.e. it will require ‘morphotypes’ to fix a morphospecies.
  3. Expert curators for specific groups, possibly at state-level, that oversea the addition of new species.

Addition of new species will likely be managed at the state level, so let’s think this through for WA and spiders. There are approximately 900 described species in the state, our best estimates of the total number of species is probably three times as much (round it up to 3,000). For arguments sake, let’s assume that about half of the described species have been recently revised and can be identified based on published revisions. That leaves us with ca. 2,500 to be illustrated online for identification (however, no reason to not also include described species by using the published images, copyrights permitting). Many of these will occur in the neighbouring states or even Australia-wide (Australia-wide, about 3,800 spider species are described of an estimated 10,000+ species).

This number for WA spiders is just about as much as the Barrow Island Quim has been done since 2004! Not only is it possible, it has actually been done.

Let’s now assume, like Antweb, an online image catalog is being contributed to by the whole scientific community, overseen by expert curators to guarantee taxonomic consistency of the system? For example, if I as environmental consultant with expertise identification skill find a species and cannot find it online, I submit standard images and the specimen to the ‘curator’ who simply has to upload the images, establish a morphotype and add distribution data to the database (maybe by IBRA region?). In a well-established online Contents Management System (CMS) this may take all put 15 min per species. It’s almost like the Encyclopedia of Life for undescribed species. Once it is set up with a core number of species for each taxon, I would hopefully again momentum. Imagine then, that museum curators use the system to identify new accessions, database these and the respective distribution data would be available on the ALA (which by then allows listing of the established morphotypes).

We would move from species description to species registration, which, of course, would ultimately enormously facilitate future taxonomic revisions.

Of course there will be errors in the system, but a species is only a hypothesis after all

We won’t be able to scientifically describe all invertebrate species by 2028, but we can document a large proportion of these within 10 years!

Sally Fryar

I am a fungal taxonomist, specialising in the marine and freshwater fungi of Australia. These are mostly ascomycetes and their asexual forms.

I completed my PhD at Flinders University in 1997 on the taxonomy and ecology of wood decay fungi (basidiomycetes), examining indirect effects of multi-species interactions. In 1998 I moved to Hong Kong as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Hong Kong where I was introduced to the fascinating world of freshwater and marine fungi under the supervision of Professor Kevin Hyde. My research took me to various peat swamp forests, mangroves and streams in Borneo where I was a visiting fellow at the Universiti Brunei Darussalam. 

The challenge with studying marine and freshwater fungi is that species descriptions are scattered throughout the literature, often in obscure, inaccessible journals and with poor illustrations. While taking a career break to have children, I spent 10 years gathering as much literature as possible on marine and freshwater fungi, putting together a database on worldwide records of each species along with their descriptions.

My aim is to provide thorough, consistent, understandable descriptions of marine and freshwater fungi of Australia along with clear illustrations and images so that non-specialists are able to identify these species.

I often find new species and genera and I am in the process of describing and publishing a number of these along with phylogenetic analyses based on molecular data.

I am an adjunct senior lecturer at Flinders University where I do some teaching and molecular work.

Ensuring adequate communication between environmental consultants and taxonomists

From Stephen Ambrose, Director, Ambrose Ecological Services Pty Ltd

In general, there are two types of ecological consultant:

  1. Specialists who focus their activities on one group of taxa (e.g. birds, bats, reptiles, marine animals) or in one industry sector (e.g. mining, urban development).
  2. General Practitioners who don’t have a particular focus and work across a broader range of ecological consultancy issues at a more superficial level than specialist consultants.

Specialist consultants tend to keep abreast with the taxonomic and biosystematic changes in the taxa that are the focus of their interest.  They usually do this by following the scientific literature, attending conferences, and occasionally being the drivers of the taxonomic and biosystematic studies.

However, generalist consultants cover too broad an area to easily keep up with revisions of all taxa that they deal with during the course of their work.  It is this group of consultants who would benefit the most from better communication about these revisions.

While the onus is on individual consultants to keep up with these revisions, taxonomists could assist with facilitating communication with them.  One possible way of doing this in NSW would be for taxonomists and evolutionary biologists to send hyperlinks to the Ecological Consultants Association of NSW (the ECA) to relevant online publications or websites.  The ECA’s Administration Officer would then forward this information to ECA members, either as a regular ECA Information Emails or as collated information in the ECA’s regular journal, Consulting Ecology.

There is probably an opportunity for taxonomists to receive information from ecological consultants, too, based on field work associated with development assessments, but I’m not sure how best to facilitate that interaction, especially as there is usually a commercial-in-confidence agreement between consultant and client.  There is also the likelihood that there will be less opportunity for this to happen with ecological consultants (in NSW, at least) spending less time in the field, and more time in front of the computer, under the new environmental legislation.

Taxonomy 2028 Challenge: Recording Indigenous nomenclature

Australia’s first nomenclaturists were those who first settled country, and in doing so began to utilise our plants and animals for food, tools, shelter, medicines and ceremony. During the more than 50,000 years of living on and with the land, Indigenous people have developed a rich nomenclature for taxa used in these ways. In each language group, specific words are used for around 10% of plants in the area, sometimes with multiple words for one Western-accepted species when there are multiple uses or different life stages are used. With many language groups and many species across Australia, this is a very large body of knowledge.

With the historical and ongoing disruptions to traditional knowledge, languages and cultural activities, many of these words, and their connections to knowledge, are endangered. This loss would be a tragedy, particularly as it would foreclose important connections to country for present and future generations.

I propose that by 2028, as part of the decadal plan, we will have implemented a national mechanism for recording these names for all language groups in Australia, in close and meaningful collaboration with their custodians and the communities for whom they are meaningful. This will be done in ways that are fully cognizant of the potential for cross-cultural miscommunication in any endeavour like this. Importantly, it will be done with due respect for the deep knowledge tradition that’s being recorded, and in a way that’s most appropriate for the needs of communities and of Indigenous people, rather than in ways that are most convenient for us. The prime goal is to record words for the language-speakers, with any advantages to our own community secondary.

 Specifically, this program will not:

  • Send out inexperienced people to record names as a shallow, one-off exercise – this would be disrespectful;
  • Record names in ways and on platforms that are convenient for us but of little use to communities – this would be useless;
  • Be rolled out with minimal consultation from communities themselves – this would not generate trust;
  • Be rolled out as a one-size-fits-all program – this would be ineffective.

 The program could work like this:

  1. A strategic assessment will be made, in collaboration with linguistic and cultural experts, of language groups throughout Australia that still have strong cultural knowledge of plant and animal names, but with the knowledge endangered by imminent loss of cultural custodians and first-language speakers;
  2. In each state or region, one or more skilled, retired botanists be identified and approached, to take part in the program;
  3. After training and with appropriate support, the botanists will build relationships with their counterparts in communities, and seek community views on the need to record names, and the most appropriate ways to do this
  4. During repeat visits, with support from linguists contracted as part of the program, names will be recorded in as simple and straightforward a way as possible
  5. Names will be provided back to communities in whatever format they consider most useful, as well as recorded in national databases to ensure they are safe in the medium to long term.

{Thanks very much to Glenn Whiteman, NT Herbarium, for useful discussions on this idea.}

Taxonomy 2028 Challenge: Knowing the origins of the Australian biota

By the year 2028 we will have compiled a database of information on the origin of Australia’s biota. This database will detail the area of origin for every genus within Australia, and the timing of its original arrival in Australia.

Initially, the database could be compiled from published phylogenetic data, eventually being replaced with phylogenetic information which has been analysed in a consistent methodology.  This goal could be achieved through the targeted sampling and molecular sequencing of lineages that have distributions spanning Australia and neighbouring landmasses (Southeast Asia, the Pacific, Antarctica, etc.) and then of lineages with more cosmopolitan distributions. This database will establish an understanding of the unique and varied evolutionary history of the Australian biota, determining which lineages are ancient Gondwanan relicts and more recent immigrants, as well as identifying spatio-temporal patterns of immigration, emigration and diversification in the history of the assembly of the Australian biota. It would also provide an invaluable resource for the advancement of research in Australian biogeography, biogeography theory, invasive species ecology, geology, palaeontology, evolutionary theory, trait evolution and ecology and for informing conservation priorities and strategies.

This phylogenetic information could be integrated into the ALA platform through the addition of interactive phylogenies on each taxon’s ALA page. Clicking on nodes of each phylogeny could show biogeographic, morphological trait and divergence age data for that taxon. Publication of phylogenetic information in such an interactive way would engage the public and raise understanding of the significance of the unique evolutionary histories of groups within the Australian biota. It would provide an alternative visual mechanism for exploring taxa by placing them in a phylogenetic context. It would also provide a platform through which evolutionary concepts are made accessible for lay people, encouraging the the exploration of integrative evolutionary questions and engaging them with concepts in systematics, evolution and taxonomy.

Lizzy Joyce
PhD Candidate - Australian Tropical Herbarium & James Cook University

Linneaus and the Ackronyme project (satire)

The following fragment was pieced together from notes written by Jakob Rindler and only recently discovered in a shed at the Liverpool Botanic Garden. It is thought the notes were acquired, together with many other documents and specimens from the Linneaus estate, by Sir James Smith in 1783.

Although not an "apostle" student of Linneaus, Rindler was a summertime house-guest at the Linneaus farm at Hammarby, now a suburb of Uppsala. In the early 1760s a botanic garden was planted at Hammarby, and in several letters from Linneaus, Rindler is mentioned as a young and enthusiastic botanist who was of great help in tending the Hammarby plantings.

Judging from internal evidence, the meeting reported by Rindler probably took place in 1764 or 1765. It is curious that Linneaus never mentioned the interview with Sir Edward Ackronyme in later correspondence.

I have taken the liberty of translating Rindler's notes into reasonably modern English.


The master was visited today by an English gentleman, Sir Edward Ackronyme, who carried letters of introduction from Earl Macclesfield [Royal Society of London] and Philip Miller [Chelsea Physic Garden].

The gentleman appeared to be very intelligent and spoke both Swedish and Latin. He praised the master's many contributions to knowledge. He said the master was a scientific colossus of the age and respected by all who knew the master's work. He said famam extendere factis [through our deeds we extend our fame] on the master's coat-of-arms was an inspiration to all natural philosophers.

The gentleman said he had read the second edition of the master's Species Plantarum, and had observed that it was supplemented with corrections to the text and with additional notes. The gentleman had a proposal to make in connection with this.

He proceeded to describe correctly and in interesting detail how Species Plantarum had been written and published, which greatly surprised the master. The gentleman said that his proposal did not, however, concern the production of scholarly books, but instead the use and diffusion of the knowledge in the books.

The gentleman explained that he and others had invented a method for reproducing the master's descriptions, using a large number of scribes and a new means of printing which was very swift and not expensive. The words of the master concerning individual species would be copied out by the scribes and printed in large numbers as separata.

The separata might then be sold more widely than the Species Plantarum. The gentleman gave an example, in which a philosopher in Virginia could acquire the descriptions of plants and animals native to Virginia. The two volumes of Species Plantarum contained many descriptions of plants and animals which were not found in Virginia and might not be of interest to philosophers there. The separata pertaining to Virginia, or to any other place, could be gathered up and placed in a pouch.

The gentleman said that if a purchaser was only interested in Pisces in the master's Systema Naturae, then the separata for Pisces could be gathered together for the purchaser.

The master observed that this was very clever. At this point the gentleman asked the master if the master could see value in this method of diffusion of knowledge. The master replied that it indeed had value.

The gentleman was pleased to hear this, and said that he had also received encouraging replies to this question from other philosophers. The gentleman had spoken directly to Dr Scopoli in Idrija and to other philosophers who had published works of natural history. Each had agreed that there was much merit in the idea of spreading more widely their descriptions and classifications.

The gentleman said that if the master wished to make a correction or addition to any one of his species, that information could be sent to the scribes, who would make the correction or addition in a new separatum. The new separatum would be sent to all those who had purchased an uncorrected version. The gentleman said this was possible because the cost of printing separata by the new method was hardly of consequence, and the number printed could be one or a thousand.

The gentleman produced a small sheet of paper and gave it to the master. On the paper had been printed a description from Species Plantarum of a species, and beneath the description was the name of the master. Beneath the name was an addition the master had made to the description, and this too was subscribed with the name of the master. At the bottom of the paper was a date, which the gentleman said was the date on which the separatum had been printed.

The master again praised the cleverness of the idea of separata. He begged leave to ask questions, and the gentleman agreed.

The master asked first whether there would be a cost to himself in the production of separata. The gentleman said there would be no cost to the master or to other philosophers. The work of the scribes and the printing of separata would have royal patronage. He was not presently permitted to name the royal courts from which the patronage would come.

The master expressed surprise to hear that more than one kingdom was offering to assist. The gentleman explained that the idea of diffusion of knowledge through separata was not his alone. He was one of a group of interested gentlemen distributed throughout Europe. Each member of the group made a particular contribution. His own contribution related to printing, regarding which he could modestly admit to having acquired a degree of expertise.

The group of gentlemen met on occasions in various European cities. Their next meeting would take place in Paris. They would consider the question of whether separata should be printed only in Latin, or also in various modern languages, and if the latter, whether one separatum should be printed in more than one language. The gentleman said there were arguments for and arguments against, and the question might have to be resolved at a later meeting in another city.

Now the master asked, whether the patronage enjoyed by the gentlemen could be extended to natural philosophers and their students. The gentleman apologised because he did not think it possible. The production and distribution of separata was a matter of diffusion of knowledge, not of the generation of knowledge. The gentleman said that he and the other gentlemen greatly appreciated the work done by the master and other natural philosophers. It was the humble role of the gentleman and his associates to spread that knowledge and to make it more useful.

At this the master became upset and spoke severely. He said he worked day and night on the investigation of a science that a thousand men will not be able to complete, to say nothing of the time he squandered every day on scientific correspondence, while the gentleman and his colleagues can constantly enjoy the amenities of life. The master said that separata may indeed be of value, but they add nothing at all to knowledge, and that the gaining of knowledge was his constant goal.

The gentleman said that he hoped nothing he had said had angered the master, and that he had one more question to ask. While the scribes were skilled and diligent, it occasionally happened that a copying error was made when producing the separata. The gentleman asked whether the master would be willing to examine drafts of separata before they were printed. He explained that he and his associates were not natural philosophers, and that natural philosophers would be the persons best able to locate and correct any errors.

This concluded the meeting with the gentleman. The master did not reply to the last question, but wished the gentleman a good day, and turned to me and said that there was work to be done in the garden.

- Bob Mesibov

A Dream of Invertebrate Utopia

I am continually impressed by the diversity of views and proposals for the Decadal Plan coming from different parts of the taxonomic community in Australia.  The project has brought some quite disparate communities together to discuss common goals as they have never done before.  

More and more I see the broader taxonomic community divided into two camps, those that are working on less diverse and relatively well-resourced taxonomic groups, and those that are working on very diverse but relatively poorly resourced groups.  Taxonomic groups don't switch between these camps, it is destiny, so resourcing differences become magnified and accentuated over generations and centuries.  

There has now be come such a huge divide between the "haves" and the "have-nots" that it has become a challenge in and of itself.  Much as rising income disparity is now seen as a major challenge for western democracies.  The differences between the "haves" and "have nots" are now so profound that priorities and solutions are often different depending on the camp the particular idea originated in.  I think it is also important to acknowledge the illogical, emotionally-driven and innately human process by which taxonomic groups end up in the "have" or "have not" category.  You could logically conclude that resources available to western science for taxonomy have only ever really scaled to the small groups of obvious macroscopic organisms, such as vertebrates and others, together representing just 5% or so of species.

The large and random differences in our taxonomic knowledge of different groups has a negative impact on biology generally.  It hampers any study that attempts to examine communities or ecosystems from a process or systems perspective.  We know some macroscopic species well, but are ignorant of species to which they are intimately connected and critically dependent, simply because those connected species happen to belong to one or more "have not" taxonomic groups.  

I wrote this little satirical piece of whimsy that imagined one of the "have not" groups, the weevils (Curculionoidea: Coleoptera), historically had been included as one of the "have" groups.  Hopefully it will cast some light on the different resource levels available to the "haves" and "have nots". I think we need to fully appreciate the challenges these institutional and resourcing differences have stamped on our communities before we can move forward together.


A Dream of Invertebrate Utopia

With satirical apologies to George Orwell’s Animal Farm


I don’t know how it all started, perhaps back in the 1700’s naturalists imagined that there were as many weevils as all other animals and plants, but that is not really my concern.  Quibble with the numbers, we now estimate that there are around 20,000-25,000 weevil species here, and they make up about 5% of Australia’s biota, in other words we have about as many weevil species as butterflies and moths, or plants. As we intensify our focus, we are discovering more and more new Australian weevil species.

Our scientific community studies weevils (Curculionoidea) because they are extremely diverse and occur all over Australia.  They are ecologically important, some species are pests, others are biosecurity threats and yet more are biological control agents.  You can walk into any Australian environment from the wet rainforests to the arid inland, and find a unique community of weevils.  Weevils first appear in the fossil record 160 million years ago, and Australia is home to some of the early branching lineages.  Our weevil fauna includes giant Eurhamphus that feed exclusively on southern hemisphere pines. Weevils are some of the most damaging pest of timber and stored grain, so understanding weevils is vitally important for our economy. Besides that, they are cool! 

Right back at the beginnings of the development of each state, and in the commonwealth, we set up large institutions devoted to the study of weevils, called Weevilariums.  These institutions are going strong today each with 20-30 paid staff beavering away studying the taxonomy, biogeography and phylogeny of Australia’s weevils.  And the good news is we are getting ever so close to finishing the job!

Each state Weevilarium has worked hard over more than a century on the taxonomy of the weevils from their state.  You really can gather some momentum with that sort of workforce over that many generations.  First we produced hard copy book series called Weevils of NSW, etc.  Turns out that we worked so hard in each state we had described many species more than once - especially those that cross state boundaries.  But that doesn’t matter-why just deliver when you can overdeliver, I say!  Now we are putting all the weevil treatments together electronically with commonwealth funding, and we really are going to have to sort out those overlaps once and for all.  Kind of a victory lap. Thank goodness for forward planning!

The Australian Weevilariums are incredibly well connected globally, and we even have set up a bespoke international code of nomenclature just for weevils!  Nothing like a specialist tool for a specialized job.  Now the codes for weevils and the remaining biota have diverged quite a bit, like Spanish and Portugese.  Sometimes if you know one you can read bits of the other, but if people are talking nomenclature the two systems are incoherent!

Thanks to commonwealth weevil digitization funds, we now have almost all 10 million weevil specimens in the Weevilariums databased, we have developed great lists of all the weevil species in each state.  We are making great headway in imaging all weevil type specimens.  We can now map and model weevil distributions with great accuracy, and search for areas of endemism and high species diversity with great sophistication.  We have very detailed information on weevil abundance, and have listed many species as rare and threatened with the appropriate authorities.  Weevil conservation biology is now an expanding field, generating large amounts of external income for the community. We even had a Weevil Liason Officer position at the Natural History Museum in London for more than 50 years sorting out the curly issues to do with weevil type specimens in European museums.

We now have a great self-sustaining system with academics at universities studying weevil taxonomy, teaching courses in weevil taxonomy and biology, churning out PhD graduates that can take positions at the Weevilariums. Our Australian Systematic Weevil Society meetings are attended by more than one hundred engaged professionals and students each year. We even have our own special weevil subcommittee to assess and recommend commonwealth funds for weevil taxonomy.  Nothing like having real experts making the big decisions! Probably something like 40% of the resources available for taxonomy in Australia are now devoted to weevils. 

Weevil larvae eat plants, but we are so busy studying weevils that we rarely take samples of the plants they are feeding on.  Early on in my career I took a few samples to the grumpy old retired guy who passes for our Australian plant taxonomy expert.  I had to keep badgering him for the ID’s, and after a few months he said none of the plants were described anyway.  Bit of a waste of time, but I did at least give him a chance!

We even have a number of weevil egg banks dotted around the country.  Weevil eggs are in demand because they are used in biological control programs both here and overseas.  In Canberra we have an egg bank for small weevils, a separate egg bank for big weevils, and there is another one for weevil eggs of all sizes just outside of Sydney.  We are planning brand new facilities for the two Canberra egg banks.  You can’t have enough new weevil egg banks, I say!

Looking back over the field it is clear that the high level of investment in weevil taxonomy has given us a huge head start in comparison to the taxonomic knowledge of almost every other group.  I suppose we really could learn more about weevils place in ecosystems if we knew a little more about the plants they feed on, for example.  It would also help with their conservation as well.  I guess weevils are really a boutique slice (5%) of our biodiversity. But what a great example we have provided for the communities studying other taxonomic groups to follow!

Our real focus these days is the tiny (0.5-1.0 mm long) black and brown weevils.  I don’t know what we will do once we have finished the taxonomy of Australia’s weevils.  Maybe move on to the Cerambycidae (longicorn beetles), another hugely diverse, ecologically important, related group.  But there is a lot to be said for just sticking to weevils.  With grand institutions to fill, new technologies and theories to apply, we may never finish!


Then I woke up, and reality dawned on me.  There are no Weevilariums in Australia or the world.  There is one professional weevil taxonomist working here on our fauna of 20,000-25,000 species.  Our weevil taxonomist is entirely supported in the Australian National Insect Collection by a generous bequest of millions of dollars from a philanthropist.  Without this gift there would be precisely no weevil taxonomists in Australia. Our weevil taxonomist is expected to revise a large chunk of the Australian weevil fauna during his career, as well as provide continuing advice in biosecurity and pest management.

With this level of investment we will never know the weevil fauna of Australia in any coherent time frame, and we invest even less in the study of almost every other comparably-sized invertebrate group.  I have chosen weevils as the subject of this satirical piece for convenience, any number of other comparable invertebrate groups could substitute.

Counting species - questions and meta-questions

Yet another paper has come out (Larsen et al. "Inordinate fondness multiplied and redistributed: The number of species on earth and a new pie of life" The Quarterly Review of Biology 92(3): 229-265, 2017) asking the perennial "how many species are there on earth" question.

This is potentially an important question, and potentially a non-question. The question (whether it's important or not a question) is in turn important for the decadal plan, but also more broadly for biology as a whole. I'll return to the decadal plan later.

This issue is a problem, because current estimates for the number of species on earth vary from ~2 million (see refs in paper above) to ~1 trillion (I don't even really know how big a trillion is, but it's much bigger than 2 million). The paper above takes a stab in the dark (the authors would dispute this) and puts the figure at 1–6 billion. 

Take your pick. That's our problem. The number can be almost anything you want it to be.

But I think there's a bigger problem, which is that none of the studies that make these estimates ask what I think is the most important question, which is: does the how-many-species question make any sense? (Or more precisely, is the question answerable? The studies assume that it is, without justifying this assumption.) 

This is a meta-question, a question about a question. Until we can answer the meta-question, trying to answer the question is almost certainly futile. Let me explain; but first, let me digress to the late 18th Century.

At that time, some of the most influential French scientists (Jussieu, Adanson, De Candolle) had an important argument about the "shape" of nature. Jussieu (one of the leading scientists in the post-Linnaean world) argued from first principles that nature was continuous. He believed that somewhere out there (and increasingly being discovered during the great age of exploration) existed an intermediate form between every recognised taxon. There would be found organisms that would bridge the apparent gap between all species, between all genera, all families, all orders etc. Nature, in Jussieu's view, would prove to be a complete continuum, and taxonomy would eventually become an utterly arbitrary division of that continuum, just as colour terms arbitrarily divide the spectrum of visible light. Jussieu, by the way, was perfectly comfortable with this.

Adanson and De Candolle, by contrast, believed that the gaps observed between clusters of closely similar organisms were real, and that a relatively non-arbitrary ("natural") taxonomy could be based on the identification of these gaps. What's more, they believed that the cluster-and-gaps pattern could be discerned at all taxonomic levels, allowing us to create a natural classification of species, genera, families etc.

Adanson and De Candolle won. Nature was found to be inherently gappy; they had invented a (non-algorithmic) form of the phenetic method; and a century-and-a-half of a "taxonomy of the gaps" ensued.

Phylogenetics has slightly changed our views on all this, but only slightly. We're now interested in clades and all that, of course, but (at least at species level) we're still very keen on gaps. We now use terms like coalescence; the issue may take the form of working out what percentage difference between two barcodes is required to infer two species; it's still about gaps.

But - what if Jussieu was right? Not exactly right in the sense that there is a continuum of forms, but right in the sense that there's a continuum of gaps. What if there are big gaps (between e.g. a tuatara and its nearest relatives) down to small gaps (between two closely realted species) to smaller gaps (perhaps between "cryptic species") to very small gaps (the ones that the next generation of taxonomic splitters may use to ensure that taxonomy is a never-ending science, and that some orchid taxonomists use today - sorry, couldn't resist the dig). 

What does this mean to our question "how many species are there"? It may mean that the answer is whatever number you want it to be. Curiously, that seems to be about where we're at.

The problem can be rephrased in modern terms: is the pattern of variation in nature (call it its shape) fractal? A fractal pattern would be one where the pattern of "gappiness" is about the same all the way down. The gaps become finer and finer, but we can discern gaps all the way. If nature is fractal in this sense, then asking the question "how many species are there" is as meaningless as the classic fractal example "how long is the coastline of Australia?" There's no answer to that question. If you measure Australia's coastline on a 1:1,000,000 map you'll come up with one estimate; if you trace around every headland and minor prominence you'll get a much larger answer; if you trace around every grain of sand on every beach you'll get a larger answer still. In a fractal system, some questions are silly.

If, however, the shape of nature is non-fractal and there's a minimum observable gap, which we could use to objectively delimit species, then the question isn't silly at all (it's merely difficult).

So - I think we need to answer the meta-question ("Is the pattern of variation in nature such that the question of how many species exist is answerable?") before we try to answer the question ("how many species exist?"). An important question is - how could we go about answering the meta-question?

A thought experiment may help. Imagine that we had a full genome sequence of every individual organism on earth (no, I'm not suggesting this as a goal for the decadal plan). We could then use a super-super-computer to calculate the pairwise distances of every individual from every other individual, and plot these on a graph (increasing distance on the x-axis, frequency of that distance value on the y-axis). There would be a wide spread of pairwide distances on our plot, from close to zero to some arbitrarily large number. 

If the shape of nature is fractal, we'd see a complete spread of distance values with only random troughs and peaks; if, however, there's a real "species-gap", we'd see a distinct, non-random dip in the frequency distribution at some distance value somewhere closeish to the x-origin.

Our dataset would allow more sophisticated analyses. We could partition the data into different taxonomic groups (do we see a species-gap in, say, spiders as well as in bacteria, birds and plants - and importantly, if we do is it in the same place?). We could also partition into different ecological niches (do rainforest taxa have a gap in the same place as arid-zone taxa?; do r-strategists have a gap in the same place as K-strategists?), or breeding systems (do taxa that use sexual selection have a gap in the same place as taxa that don't?).

When you think about it, a graph like this would give us crucial insights, not only into the meta-question discussed here, but to help assess utility of e.g. barcodes for species delimitation. 

For what it's worth, my own guess is that we wouldn't see a magic value on a graph like this, but rather a random pattern of peaks and troughs all the way down. That is, my guess is that the question "how many species are there?" is a silly question.

Of course, like all good thought experiments, we could never do this. So this opens a new question - can we approximate the graph using real-world data sets? One possibility may be to use environmental genomic data - this has the advantage that it's presumably sampling sequences from every individual in the genomic soup, with no inherent taxonomic bias or pre-assumed taxonomy. I have no idea whether this idea has merit, and would be pleased to hear from someone who actually knows what they're talking about in this space.

One final question - do we try to deal with this issue in the decadal plan? We need to be careful about admitting that we have absolutely no idea how many species are in Australia and any estimate could be out by many orders of magnitude (this is not a great starting point for asking for funding to document our biodiversity). But we could argue for a project that addresses the meta-question, if indeed there's a way to address it. Now that would be a world scoop, I reckon.

As always, thoughts and comments very welcome.

Roger Shivas

I am a mycologist and plant pathologist. My research interests are the systematics of fungi, especially those that cause diseases of plants and insects.

Currently I have two jobs, one as curator of the Queensland Plant Pathology Herbarium, Department of Agriculture and Fisheries as well as a professor (mycology) at the University of Southern Queensland.

Further information about the work that my colleagues and I do can be found at

Dr Roger Shivas

Principal Plant Pathologist
Biosecurity Queensland
Department of Agriculture and Fisheries
GPO Box 267, Brisbane, Qld 4001

Tel. 61 7 3708 8478