Nature Taxonomy tells us how animals, plants and the planet are changing. But without better funding and more young scientists, we will be left with millions of anonymous species, says Roger Dobson
It was under the last rock of the day, that scientists finally came face to antennae with the giant crayfish of Shoal Creek. Twice as big as its competitors, the hairy crayfish, which can grow to lobster proportions, was a new species not previously seen.
Scientists had begun the search for the creature, now named Barbicambarus simmonsi, after anecdotal reports and sightings in creeks around Tennessee. "It was the end of the day and we saw this big flat boulder underneath a bridge and so we said, 'OK. Let's flip this rock, just for the heck of it; this will be our last one','' says co-discovers Dr Guenter Schuster. "And sure enough, that's where we got the first specimen, a big male.'"
The hairy crayfish is one of an estimated 16,000 new species that have been found over the past 12 months, bringing the size of the known animal kingdom to some 1.4 million species. But there is still a long way to go. There are more than five million which remain to be found, according to new research, which warns that at the present rate of cataloguing them all will take 360 years.
Researchers, who describe the situation as a crisis, are now calling for more efforts and resources to be put into the science of taxonomy - the discipline of describing, defining and naming organisms. A new report based on a survey of the current state of taxonomy in the UK, to be published shortly, will warn that more investment is needed in the science and that the UK has only about 500 taxonomists doing the bulk of the work.
"The collapse of taxonomy in the UK universities is extremely worrying, no one is training the new generation of young taxonomists needed to monitor changes in biodiversity, to deliver high-quality research, or to meet the demands of industry," says Professor Geoff Boxshall, zoologist at the Natural History Museum, who led the investigation.
Taxonomy really began as a science in the 18th century with the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, whose naming system is still used. The work is key to the conservation and management of biodiversity, yet there are more unknown than known species.
One of the challenges for taxonomy is that it is often seen as an old and intellectually unchallenging, conveyor- belt science, that simply involves describing new species. Worse still, it's been suggested that the analysis could be done just as well by comparing the DNA of each species - a kind of barcode taxonomy. Not so, say taxonomists, there is much more to their science than just comparing DNA. They are the curators of knowledge about species - their identity, how they live, and how they interact with others and the environment. They enable us to understand the functional role of biodiversity and help with the diagnosis of exotic pests and disease organisms. Measuring the impact of climate change on biodiversity is another key and burgeoning area requiring their skills.
Boxshall, who was scientific adviser to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee's recent inquiry into the subject, said: "Taxonomy is incredibly important. We need to understand biodiversity and its role in providing ecosystem services, such as pollination, upon which our society depends.
"Our concern is that taxonomy is not taken seriously. It is not rated very highly and there is very little in the way of practical courses at universities in the UK. We estimate that there are only 500 taxonomists in the UK and there are already significant gaps in our knowledge of the plant and animal species around us. Skills are being lost nationally and new graduates are no longer being trained.
"New molecular techniques, DNA barcoding and so on, will simplify the identification of species, but the basic information that can be provided by gene jockeys is only a small part of what taxonomy provides. …