Taxonomy 2028 Challenge: a taxonomic emergency for vanishing coral reef fauna

The world’s coral reefs are facing imminent degradation from a variety of pressures. Current research suggests we have lost half of the world’s coral reefs in the last 30 years, and that reefs will disappear completely in the next 20-30 years. Despite this, the biodiversity of coral reefs is globally estimated to be represented by around 950,000 (±40%) multicellular species and only 10% of them have been described (Fisher et al. 2015). 

By 2028 we could double the number of described coral reef taxa.

This vision will result in a more comprehensive inventory for a fauna that we do not have the luxury of working steadily on for the next few decades. This is of great importance for a myriad of reasons, not least among which, coral reef organisms have contributed many new drugs that might preserve or improve human well-being.

This type of taxonomic emergency is something that scientists should come together to co-operate and speed up outcomes, before its too late.

[To be honest, I have no idea if this is achievable or not. It would require the description of 95,000 species in 10 years. Seems big. But achievable if big investment also occurs. And morally speaking, I think we should try!].

8 responses
I think this is a really good idea, and exactly the type of thing we need to be doing, for two reasons - for the reason you state (that the situation is desperate), and because we need to be seen to be responsive to the biodiversity crisis (if we aren't, how can we expect others to be?). You make the point at the end that this would require us to document and name a whopping 95,000 species in a decade. My question is - how would we do this? What would need to change (in addition to more investment) for this to be do-able? I don't think we can simply say to government "give us 10X the cash, and we'll describe 10X the species". We need to meet half-way, and convince them that we're onto smart ways to achieve this. It would be great to develop a change-strategy for taxonomy that would make this achievable.
Well I think it has been developed actually (see Cook et al 2010 Invertebrate Systematics, 2010, 24, 322–326 for just one example). It's just that these things are happening on a tentative trickle basis right now. It hasn't been published on a large scale. Nothing stopping us, other than mostly peer opinion....
Hmm - good point. We need much more discussion about this. So do you think that if we allowed DNA-only descriptions rather than giving primacy to morphology, this would have a significant impact on our ability to name 95,000 species in a decade? (I'm not trying to raise a straw man - that this would solve all impediments - just trying to get a handle on whether this is a first- or second-order issue in our ability to substantially ramp up our documentation and naming of biodiversity. I think this is a critical question). Maybe we need to do some thought experiments here: Experiment 1: Taking Cook et al 2010 as a starting point, we agree that a DNA sequence alone is adequate as a description (the name still linked to a physical voucher as a type). Experiment 2. We continue with the status quo (that morphology retains some descriptive primacy, with sequences secondary), but are willing to address other impediments (e.g. we write short, diagnostic descriptions rather than long, full ones). Experiment 3. We go the whole hog, and allow DNA sequences as types for names. (Note that experiment 4, where we continue with the status quo in all respects, is probably not worth discussing.) Let's say the government gives us $2M per annum for a decade of taxonomy on the reef. I think it would be useful to try to flesh out what we would actually do under each scenario, then try to (1) compare our likely chance of getting to 95,000 species in a decade, and (2) think about the following decade, and what we could do with those 95,000 species characterised in these three ways.
And another thought (sorry). I reckon this links with my post at Simply naming 95,000 species on the GBR before they go extinct could be seen as pointless. Yes, we always use the platitude that naming a species is the first step to conserving it, but the problems of the GBR are bigger than this. So however we name things, let's also get them into a genomic ark, that might help us in a century or two if we manage to navigate out of the mess that is the Early Anthropocene.
Re. your experiment 2, Kevin, I think we need to move to shorter descriptions. For some groups there is pressure to describe the organism in great detail AND provide numerous, high quality images in addition to drawings of some of those images. It seems like as our technology becomes better, we are required to include more representations of the same character, instead of replacing some aspects with the newer technology.
I think the issue of DNA vs morphology vs other approaches as being key to speeding up the process of description is chasing a red herring, and a second order issue. To be sure, new technology applied to imaging, sequencing, refinements to the descriptive process etc do help speed things, but not significantly, and certainly not by orders of magnitude. The key impediment, which remains the elephant in the room, is the decline in trained experts. Greater gain will be made by creating long term funding streams for additional FTE, rather than modifying standards of taxonomic description.
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