Taxonomy misunderstood and unrecognised

A Galethea squat lobster and likely new species.
Image: Gary Cranitch.


Saturday 21 November 2009
As much as two-thirds of marine life remains undiscovered – and this is particularly true for the Australian tropics – yet the work of scientists seeking out new species and describing them is often misunderstood and unrecognised, says a senior scientist at Sydney's Australian Museum.
Senior Principal Research Scientist Pat Hutchings said taxonomy – the practice and science of classification – struggled to gain funding from major granting bodies and suffered a shortage of skilled taxonomists.
She said universities did not always expose their students to the fieldwork that often inspired young marine taxonomists.
For young career scientists who do gain a passion for this branch of science, Dr Hutchings said career opportunities were linked to funding.
"Although the Australian Museum is currently recruiting, there are very few positions available nationally," she said.
Senior Curator at the Museum of Tropical Queensland (Queensland Museum), Niel Bruce said taxonomy also faced the hurdle of not being regarded as a serious science.
"Some of the other scientists in other disciplines don't see it as a science but as a service, perhaps not realising just how much remains unknown," Dr Bruce said.
"Yet everything we do as biologists is underpinned by sound taxonomy."
Despite these hurdles, Dr Bruce said BHP Billiton's funding of the CReefs Australia project and Australia Biological Resources Study funding had made it possible for experienced and student taxonomists to expand their research of coral reefs, considered to be the most diverse of all marine ecosystems.
AIMS Principal Research Scientist and Principal Investigator of the CReefs project, Dr Julian Caley, said a number of young scientists had joined this year's Heron Island expedition and he was impressed by their enthusiasm.
"They are like-minded, dedicated to their particular groups of interest and willing to share their findings and enthusiasm leading to a real synergy among the researchers," Dr Caley said.
He said the young scientists were proof there was a pool of talent available to replace older scientists as they retired – so long as there were jobs available to accommodate them.