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What is taxonomy and its process?

Taxonomy is how we understand New Zealand’s living things, allowing us to identify native and non-native species as well as pests, weeds and toxic organisms. The steps are: collect, identify, store, research and database.

Collect

The first step in building taxonomic knowledge is to collect specimens. 

taxonomic knowledge collect

Species discovery in New Zealand

Species discovery, description, and classification are still a big part of taxonomic research in New Zealand, and field collecting programmes and specimen acquisition are important related activities with much to discover: 

  • Vascular plants, the most obvious features of our landscape, are not nearly as well-known as one would expect from a small first-world country, with about 15% of species yet to be described;
  • 70% of New Zealand’s arthropods (a group including insects, spiders and crustaceans, such as crayfish) remain undescribed;
  • in the past 10 years, species as large and evident as whales and kiwi were discovered to be distinct and were described using museum-held specimens;
  • taxonomic work currently underway on lizards is likely to identify as many as 40 new taxa that are endemic to New Zealand, nearly doubling the number currently described.
  • It is estimated that 80% of our native species live in New Zealand's large marine zone but only 1% of this has been surveyed.

Identify

Once a new specimen has been collected, the next step in the process is to identify whether it is a known species or one yet to be described. This requires expert taxonomic knowledge. 

taxonomic knowledge identify

Although collection-holding organisations do not have specialists for all taxonomic groups represented in their collections, trained taxonomists facilitate access to national or international expertise and research activities.

There remains a need, however, for New Zealand to have a critical mass of expertise with a deep knowledge of New Zealand’s biota and its taxonomy. This is not something that can be imported from offshore.

The view of at least one government agency reliant on taxonomic expertise is that it takes 10 to 15 years to develop in depth taxonomy expertise.

 

Case study: New Zealand’s unique species – Albatrosses/ Toroa

Using museum specimens, molecular, and ecological information, the taxonomy of albatrosses was revised in 1996, increasing the degree of endemism for the group and New Zealand’s role in managing the conservation of this highly threatened species group. The number of species recognised increased from 15 to 22, and New Zealand’s endemic species increased from three to eight, with 12 species in total nesting in New Zealand. Two endemic New Zealand taxa remain to be revised, with a possible two new endemic species to be added to the total of 22. 
Nunn et al. (1996), Robertson & Nunn (1998).

 

Store

After a specimen has been collected and identified, it may need to be stored, especially if it is a newly described species.

At present New Zealand has 29 taxonomic collections in 20 institutions holding 12 million specimen sets. 

taxonomic knowledge store

Storage requirements and standards

There are very specific requirements for the storage of biological specimens depending on the nature of the taxa being curated.

Such requirements include:

  • climate-controlled facilities (e.g. for humidity, temperature, light control; continuous operation of freezers or growth cabinets)
  • specific health and safety considerations for material preserved and stored in alcohol or formalin
  • storage facilities for specimens that may range from micro-millimetre scales (microalgae, fungi) through to large and heavy objects (marine mammal skeletons, fossils)
  • specific maintenance requirements for living collections.

Other important considerations include the management of toxins and hazardous materials associated with the preservation and storage of collections, as well as the requirements under biosecurity legislation for most New Zealand collections to be registered as containment facilities with the Ministry for Primary Industries.

Research

Having access to stored specimens can be really important for research, either taxonomic or for other research questions.

taxonomic knowledge research

Taxonomy allows the correct identification and naming of species. Nevertheless, names are subject to change as new species are discovered, and existing species are reassessed in the light of new knowledge.

Therefore, in order for the collections to maintain currency and impact, it is essential that they are associated with active taxonomic research programmes. The presence of highly trained and experienced taxonomists is also necessary for informed decision-making by end-users.

Access to appropriate advice and information about new developments within the field, the updating of classifications, and the application of national and international standards are also needed by end-users.

 

Case study: Using herbarium specimens to track the ozone hole

Research workers have been able to use herbarium collections of mosses collected from Antarctica to examine flavonoid contents and estimate historical levels of Antarctic UVB radiation. Each year since ca. 1975 an ozone hole has developed over Antarctica from September to late November which means that during spring most of the region is subjected to abnormally high levels of UVB radiation. Using herbarium samples of the moss collected in Antarctica, research workers have been able to compare the levels of flavone aglycones in plants collected before and after the formation of the ozone hole, and thereby determined historical levels of UVB radiation. 
(Markham et al. (1990); Ryan et al. (2009))

 

Database

For taxonomic information to be shared, databases need to be maintained and, where possible, made available online. 

taxonomic knowledge database

Databases and information systems

Most of New Zealand’s collections have associated tools and databases, which are the means by which the collections and associated taxonomy are able to be used. These may be institutionally specific (e.g. Landcare Research) or proprietary systems (See Appendix 4). It is important to note that access to data and the quality of subsequent analyses depend on the quality of information available: many collections await identification and taxonomic investigation.

Varying proportions of collections have been databased with many institutions having a considerable backlog of work yet to be completed, but with very limited sources of funds to do so. There is no common standard for collection databases although a bottom-up grouping of institutions has now formed a collaboration seeking to make data available.