National Taxonomy Forum

4–5 October 2007


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Powerpoint presentations

  1. Bradley Smith (FASTS): Who cares? Taxonomy (PPT - 386.5 KB)
  2. Gerry Cassis: Australia’s Taxonomic Impediment (PPT - 6.94 MB)
  3. Pauline Ladiges: Systematics (PPT - 5.24 MB)
  4. Andrew Lowe: Molecular genetic applications and barcoding (PPT - 238.5 KB)
  5. Kevin Thiele: Alpha taxonomy (PPT - 6.42 MB)
  6. Frank Howarth: Future directions for Taxonomy (PPT - 1 MB)
  7. Les Christidis: DNA Barcoding (PPT - 2.23 MB)


The views and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Australian Government or the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities.

While reasonable efforts have been made to ensure that the contents of this publication are factually correct, the Commonwealth does not accept responsibility for the accuracy or completeness of the contents, and shall not be liable for any loss or damage that may be occasioned directly or indirectly through the use of, or reliance on, the contents of this publication.


DAY 1 — Thursday 4 October


9.00 – 9.15



9.15 – 9.30

Cameron Slatyer (ABRS)



Who cares? Taxonomy, realpolitik, funding and student expectations
Bradley Smith (Executive Director, Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies — FASTS)

It cannot be assumed that the significance of taxonomy is self-evident. Taxonomy needs to build a clear case for political and funding support, including identification of end-users, gaining third party endorsement and identification of value propositions.

However, taxonomy is not alone in feeling the pressure of declining students, few jobs, poorly articulated career pathways and loss of visibility in universities. There are many areas where the nation may only require a small number of bachelor and PhD graduates a year, nevertheless they are needed. However, universities have an incentive to delete areas of comparatively low demand. Thus there is a need to consider how to support small subjects and niche research areas.

Do we need pragmatic interventions like loadings or guaranteed minimum EFTSU? Such interventions in the existing funding framework may be economically sensible. However, they do not go to the deeper and more complex issue of how to attract students to areas where the threshold of intellectual payback for students may take a long time due to their intrinsic difficulty or detail.



Australia’s Taxonomic Impediment: A Global Perspective and Industrialising the Taxonomic Method
Prof Gerry Cassis (University of NSW)

It has been shown repeatedly that the taxonomic impediment is primarily an issue for organisms of the Southern Hemisphere. Australia is a case in point where the classificatory framework, adequacy of existing collections, and magnitude of the descriptive effort are issues that require attention. Within-country capacity to address these perceived shortfalls is tacitly thought to be insufficient in Australia and heading in the wrong direction. Global perspectives, such as the US National Science Foundation Program, the Planetary Biodiversity Inventory, are designed to bring together international teams, with an emphasis on cybertaxonomy and postgraduate training. This is one approach to expediting the taxonomic effort, and it serves as a model for a discussion of an alternative for and/or an enhancement of existing solutions.



Morning tea



Systematics — University research and training
Prof Pauline Ladiges (University of Melbourne)

Universities make an important contribution to systematic research, training and collections. A challenge is to reverse the past decline in the number of academic staff positions in a university environment where attracting significant research funding and having high citations are success measures (the Research Quality Framework is driving choices). Current granting bodies provide insufficient funding for systematic research and fellowships. Systematics may be in a renaissance, but improved funding and career pathways are pivotal; some strategies for building capacity are suggested.



Molecular genetic applications and barcoding
Prof Andy Lowe (University of Adelaide and Head of Science, Adelaide Botanic Gardens and State Herbarium)

Molecular genetic techniques have helped revolutionise the study of the evolution of species. Phylogenies based on neutral genes are used standardly to anchor hypotheses of systematic relationships, both at deep and shallow taxonomic divisions. A range of other applications of genetic markers, such as studies of phylogeography, genome scans and population genetics, have allowed further insight into species range expansions/contractions, hybridisation, speciation and species coherence models. Rather than making redundant traditional morphological methods, application of molecular methods have often been complementary (co-phylogenies), allowed more rigorous testing of evolutionary adaptation hypotheses (character evolution) or allowed direct insight into morphological evolution (gene evolution or expression). A new combination of morphological and molecular methods is presenting itself in the form of DNA bar coding. Rather than trivialising traditional modes of taxonomy, this new technique, by making accessible rapid biodiversity assessment for a range of applications, will make our current taxonomic collections and expertise valuable and useable in new ways. This is an opportunity that the Australian taxonomic community should embrace and be prepared for, not shun.



Alpha taxonomy underpinning land management and conservation planning in Western Australia
Dr Kevin Thiele (Curator, WA Herbarium)

13% of known taxa in Western Australia (c. 1700 taxa) are undescribed. A high proportion (30%) of these are of conservation significance and listed as Declared Rare or Priority Flora under State legislation. Although undescribed taxa can be listed under State legislation, the lack of knowledge of these taxa and poor taxonomic resolution limits conservation policy and planning. With funding from the Western Australian State Government's Saving Our Species Initiative, the Western Australian Herbarium in 2006 appointed three early career researchers to work towards high-throughput taxonomic resolution of a range of undescribed species occurring in areas of high mining prospectivity. This paper will describe the experience and the spectacular results obtained from this highly professional, focused, taxonomic SWAT team.



Future directions for taxonomy in Australia
Frank Howarth (Director, Australian Museum)

Taxonomy in Australia faces the problems of few students wanting to study in the field, universities not teaching it, and very few jobs. The broader community doesn't understand the need, and/or thinks we already know enough. Taxonomists can't agree among themselves about where the priorities are. We need agreement on the priorities and a broader-based training approach and career structure with taxonomy as a part, not an end in itself, and we need coordination and communication between educators, funders, problem owners and problem solvers about how to achieve this.



General Discussion






13.30 – 14.00

Introduction to workshop sessions & organisation
Mark Butz (Futures by Design)


14.00 – 15.00

First workshop session

15.00 – 15.30

Afternoon tea


15.30 – 16.30

Second workshop session


DAY 2 Friday 5 October


9.00 – 10.00

Third workshop session


10.00 – 10.30

Morning tea


10.30 – 11.30

Fourth workshop session


11.30 – 12.00

Introduction to afternoon plenary session






13.30 – 15.00

Plenary session


15.00 – 15.30

Afternoon tea


15.30 – 16.30

Summarising results




Atlas of Living Australia

The Atlas of Living Australia is an attempt to make current electronic biodiversity information publicly available via a single portal on the Internet. This workshop will consist of a short presentation plus a question and answer session. To be run by Dr Kevin Thiele or Cameron Slatyer, members of the ALA Management Committee.
(2 sessions, Thursday 14.00–15.00 and Friday 9.00–10.00)


There is currently a proposal, supported by a several institutions around the country, to establish an Australian node of the Barcode of Life. This workshop will consist of a short presentation plus a question and answer session. To be run by Dr Les Christidis, Chair of the Consortium looking into the Australian node.
(2 sessions, Thursday 15.30–16.30 and Friday 10.30–11.30)

Taxonomic priorities and research gaps

This workshop will identify high-level priorities both in terms of important taxonomic groups and groups that have lost (or are in danger of losing) taxonomic expertise in Australia. Ideas put forward at each session will be used to compile a list that will direct ABRS and national priorities over the next four years. To be run by a professional facilitator.
(4 sessions, Thur 14.00–15.00 and 15.30–16.30, Friday 9.00–10.00 and 10.30–11.30)

User needs

Conservation agencies and industries such as agriculture, fisheries and mining often expect taxonomic resources to be available to meet their demands. Such expectations could become increasingly difficult to meet over the next four years because of resource shortages. There is an urgent need to identify user priorities and needs in terms of taxonomic services so that these can be planned for. Participants in this workshop will be asked to identify priorities to inform future directions for ABRS and other institutions involved in taxonomic research. To be run by a professional facilitator.
(4 sessions, Thur 14.00–15.00 and 15.30–16.30, Friday 9.00–10.00 and 10.30–11.30)

Taxonomic impediments and resourcing

Numbers of practising taxonomists and systematists are dwindling and there are increasingly serious shortfalls in the numbers of graduate and undergraduate students able and inclined to take their place. This workshop will canvass ideas from participants for innovative potential solutions to resource issues such as the scarcity of employed taxonomists, absence of career paths and shortages in student numbers. To be run by a professional facilitator.
(4 sessions, Thur 14.00–15.00 and 15.30–16.30, Friday 9.00–10.00 and 10.30–11.30)


Australia is losing its taxonomic capacity at an alarming rate. Less than nine percent of the workforce is under 30 years of age and a large percentage of the workforce is voluntary. This issue extends across the breadth of taxonomy from biosecurity to biodiversity conservation.

There is an urgent need to review existing taxonomic resources at a national scale in the light of major gaps in research capacity and the needs of user groups such as industry and government agencies.

Users have an expectation that taxonomic services will be available when required. With the current decline at a critical point, this viewpoint is not sustainable. In future, the user community in both government and private sector will need to engage more actively with research and collection institutions in order to obtain taxonomic services.


The Forum offers users of taxonomic information an opportunity to place their needs on the national agenda.

The Australian Biological Resources Study (ABRS) has responsibility for taxonomy within the Australian Government Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts. Future ABRS directions will be strongly tied to addressing the taxonomy crisis. The Forum offers research and collection institutions the opportunity to identify and prioritise research and resource needs at a national scale.

ABRS, with kind support from the Australian Museum and the Federation of Australian Science and Technology Societies (FASTS), seeks to develop a national overview on taxonomy in Australia.

The National Taxonomy Forum (4–5 October 2007), held at the Australian Museum, seeks institutional representation from the research, industry and government sectors to identify the following:

  1. A national picture of institutional needs for taxonomy
    The Forum will seek to canvas users of taxonomy, notably forestry, fisheries, agricultural and mining/development sectors about their research needs. Particular questions include whether users have particular target groups — such as parasitic organisms, or particular issues, such as the conservation status of undescribed species affecting approval processes. This will enable ABRS to develop a national strategy for addressing these questions over the next four years.
  2. A national picture of taxonomic research
    The Forum will seek to establish the major gaps in taxonomic and systematics capacity at a national scale. Particular issues include taxa for which no Australian capacity exists, or for which the Australian capacity will shortly disappear entirely. This will enable ABRS to prioritise and target future funding towards addressing these gaps.
  3. Strategies for combating taxonomic decline
    The Forum will seek to identify a toolkit for establishing educational and early career pathways for future taxonomists.

Participants will also have an opportunity to participate in information sessions on an Australian response to the Barcode of Life and the Atlas of Living Australia.

Because the number of places has to be limited for the sake of practicality, we ask that institutions send along the minimum possible representation, fully briefed with their institution's perspective on the above issues.

The Forum is structured around a two day format. The Forum is centred on a series of professionally facilitated workshops targeting the above questions. A detailed program will be forwarded in mid September, to institutions that have registered.

ABRS and FASTS intend to publish the results of the National Taxonomy Forum. ABRS will use the results of the Forum to develop a national policy on taxonomy and to develop a response strategy for recovering taxonomic capacity.