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) admin@ecansw.org.au 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.

1 response
I am not as familiar with the regulatory framework of environmental assessment in NSW, but in Western Australia there is the obligation to include terrestrial invertebrates (as 'short-range endemics') and subterranean invertebrates in biological assessments. This has necessitated material to be assessed by expert taxonomists of different groups, particularly millipedes, mygalomorph spiders, slaters and a host of subterranean crustaceans, either private or generally through the WA Museum. More recently, in particular for subterranean fauna, molecular tools are being used and some private enterprises and museums have assembled reference barcoding libraries. Invertebrate specimens had to be lodged with museum similar to reference plant specimens that are lodged in the state herbarium for identification of just confirmation of identification. Reports will necessarily include the taxonomist/organisation involved in the assessment. My point is that the introduction of EPA guidelines for SREs and subterranean fauna (in 2007 and 2009 respectively) has necessitated and driven an establishment of considerable taxonomic infrastructure and developers have repeatedly funded museum or herbarium based taxonomist to overcome the delayed timelines of their projects. In a nutshell, it's the regulators that have driven taxonomic investment in this state, including a new molecular laboratory at the WA Museum paid by industry and communication between ecologist and taxonomist was necessary to get to the result required. So there are two major ways taxonomists have to influence policies: 1. Lobby for improved survey guidelines to include lesser known groups that are of conservation interest (such as SREs and subterranean fauna in WA) 2. Use your expert knowledge to nominate conservation significant species at State and Federal level (listing the Shield-backed Trapdoor Spider Federally as Vulnerable has caused a flood of money to be spent on surveys for these spiders and has, I think, spawned taxononic research to be funded through ARC and ABRS)