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.  To use a construction analogy, the "have not" groups are still digging the foundations and can't understand why you would place such emphasis on the design of the tapware, and vice versa.

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.  We often cannot distinguish economically damaging invasive species from the local fauna simply because they being to a "have not" group and we are largely ignorant of the local fauna.

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, Weevils of Victoria, 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 long lists of all the weevil species in each state.  We are also making serious headway in imaging all weevil specimens.  We can now map and model weevil distributions with great accuracy, and search for areas of endemism and high species diversity with increasing 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.  For example, the devastating invasive water weed Salvinia molesta is now successfully controlled around the world by the introduction of the tiny weevil Cyrtobagous salviniae.  The tiny weevil larvae eat the plant, warping and stunting it until it sinks and dies.  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 really are 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 and 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.