Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Extinction is one of the most popularly understood scientific ideas - that dangerous slide through the categories ‘threatened', ‘vulnerable', ‘endangered' and so on. There are celebrity cases like dodos and thylacines, and lesser-known cases like Colombian grebes and crescent nail-tail wallabies. And every year, the world's Red List of Threatened Species gets longer; the latest update, in September 2007, added an extra 188.
Of course, to know that something is moving through those categories, you need to know what and where it is in the first place: you need to have named it and classified its place among all the other organisms that you know exist. This is the work of taxonomists - which makes it ironic that reports on the health of the taxonomists' own population suggest they're on that slippery slope themselves.
For some time now, there's been evidence of plummeting numbers (Australia has lost four taxonomy positions every year since 1991), ageing and underpaid workers (a 2003 survey revealed that around a third were already over 60, and a third were honorary researchers), and a disabling decrease in funding. Last year's State of the Environment report spoke bluntly of the "national decline in biological taxonomy. The situation in this field has become critical."
All of which provided the backdrop for a gathering of 90 taxonomists and other interested scientists at the Australian Museum in early October, under the auspices of the National Taxonomy Forum. As the participants settled in for two days of discussion, Bradley Smith, the executive director of the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies, posed the provocative question: "Who cares if taxonomy dies?"
Recently I'd spent time with the last sub-species of taxonomists to go extinct, the enthusiasts - the clergymen, civil servants, teachers and doctors - who from the late eighteenth through to the early twentieth century gave their spare time to collecting and classifying new species. My particular conduit, William John Macleay, described more than 1500 beetles alone, as well as rafts of other insects, fish, snakes and frogs in the course of his private investigations. It's the kind of activity that seems both fascinating and fundamental once you know about it. So had we run out of things to name? Or had we lost the people who knew how to do this?
Humans are good at comparison: we weigh similarities and differences to describe and make sense of the world. Pioneering this art for scientific ends, the Swedish naturalist Linnaeus - the tercentennial father of taxonomy, born in 1707, whose simple system of classifying the world's organisms can be seen as the starting point for modern science - had used the tools available to him in the eighteenth century: microscopes. Today, there are other tools in the kit. As well as comparing the colours, the scales, the external bits and pieces of different plants or animals - their morphology - scientists can now compare DNA sequences and even whole genomes. But those microscopes still provide the first level of information about anything new, which is a hard approach to sell in a market hungry for supposedly cutting-edge science. Was this why morphology-based taxonomy, or alpha-taxonomy, was under threat?
Taxonomy, as one delegate's T-shirt proclaimed, was in many ways "the first science" - not only in terms of its age, but because it feeds into so many other areas: Bradley Smith listed "biosecurity, agriculture, biodiversity, public health and the work of a whole suite of other biologists". But that contribution is often taken for granted, and there is also a dangerous public perception that all the important things that need to be discovered already have been. In reality, the world hosts roughly ten million different organisms, and only two million of them have been described. Which means, as the University of New South Wales's Gerry Cassis pointed out, "that in the 250-odd years since Linnaeus, we've managed 20% documentation". (Cassis's work for the Planetary Biodiversity Inventory on Australian Miridae, or plant bugs, has identified more than 600 new insects since 2003.)
Given that more than 80% of Australia's species are found only on this continent, given that Australia is known to be one of Earth's most biodiverse places, and given that it's also known to be losing species faster than they're found and identified, the necessity of taxonomists - and Australia's primacy as a place to explore - seems clear. "Walk into any patch of our bushland and two-thirds of the organisms you see will not have been formally recognised by science," said Cameron Slatyer, the director of the Australian Biological Resource Study (ABRS), which convened the forum. "Of the 600,000 organisms here, we know 172,000. Australian flora and fauna is more poorly understood than some parts of the Amazon, which makes this one of the few places in the world where you can do so much of this work. Almost half the continent has never even been visited by scientists, and in some places the last scientist went through in the 1890s."
Speaker after speaker outlined the problems facing the discipline. There are so few students: where science used to attract the majority of first-years, they now enrol in business. And science students have to be coaxed towards areas like taxonomy that are regarded as small, almost niche disciplines. What about creating the scientific equivalent of an MBA, someone suggested: "We need a qualification that's as good and as sexy as that." And what of the career path for students who were interested in this work? Four postdoctoral students had been employed on his Miridae work, said Cassis, and while all now held permanent taxonomic positions, "none of them are in Australia."
It was back to funding: funding for the ABRS - the federal body that disseminates information about which organisms occur here, and where - was declining. Its 2007 budget had $2.45 million to dispense across a whole discipline, but that was roughly the same amount as was allocated to scientific centres of excellence supporting the work of just one professor and their team. The overall figures might show increased funding for public research and development, but their breakdowns would reveal funding for medical research going up and funding for science going down. On the other side of the coin, though, new bodies now required taxonomic information: catchment authorities, agricultural industries, mining companies. The latter had already funded work on five new acacias in Western Australia this year.
Then there were the promises of new approaches, new technologies. The National Taxonomy Hub was investigating new taxonomic approaches for certain species. And Andrew Lowe, from the University of Adelaide and the Adelaide Botanic Gardens, described hand-held devices that would "scan" an organism, read its DNA - or a telltale "barcode" section of it - and download an identification and information about it on the spot. "It could be an add-on to your mobile phone or your iPod," he said, "and it's only five or ten years in the future."
Would this lead to "an army of untrained environmental consultants descending on ecosystems"? Or would it allow "the rapid assessment of difficult groups - like grasses, algae, bacteria, fungi - so that it becomes just another part of our toolkit"? Go with the second scenario, Lowe exhorted the room. "Think of barcoding as a component of taxonomy, as just another tool."
The speakers finished and the theatre emptied for lunch, the delegates buzzing with conversation. Perhaps extinction wasn't inevitable. Perhaps this population was simply up against the reality almost every organism faces: survive through evolution - broaden your horizons, embrace new tools, figure out new ways to attract funding, recast your approach - or head for extinction. But which path would it take?
In hours of workshops, the taxonomists grappled with their future, from Lowe's devices, with their echoes of Star Trek, to the massive Atlas of Living Australia project that promises "a biodiversity equivalent of Google" by 2011, and the necessity for microscope-based alpha-taxonomists to embrace molecular methods. A lobby group was formed to create that vital political tool: a unified, national voice. And a focus on attracting and enthusing students was agreed upon - perhaps high-school students and biology undergraduates could work in the country's museums and herbaria, experiencing first-hand what taxonomists can do.
Overall, said Cameron Slatyer later, evolution won out: "The response was overwhelmingly positive - there's general recognition that we have to do something before we run out of taxonomists." If they were a species, he said, they saw themselves now as "like a nice island fauna that's not found anywhere else. We recognise the risks to our population, but we're not going to disappear tomorrow."