Time for Taxonomy

People like to give advice. It happens all the time with parents, friends, colleagues, strangers and others. There are some discussions about what advice is needed, and then it happens, bringing a feeling of importance and pride at providing such sage input.

But what happens when someone asks for really tough advice? For example, how can we use science to conserve the plants and animals everywhere on Earth? The first response might be to run, fast, in the other direction. Or, you might take a deep breath, think deep thoughts, consult with colleagues and forge ahead. That is the way it is for a group that gives advice about taxonomy to the leaders of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

Taxonomists are science experts that discover, describe, name and classify species of plants and animals. Those are the first important steps in understanding the ever-changing inventory of life on Earth, and in making plans for conservation.

The CBD is interested in taxonomy because the capacity of existing experts cannot keep up with the needs for conservation. More capacity is needed, and it may be created through the development of new tools and better ways to operate, and by training more experts, to name a few means.

An amphitheatre with a few people.

The plenary hall at the 15th meeting of the Subsidiary Body for Technology and Technological Advice, a part of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. November 2011. Image: Mark Graham © Canadian Museum of Nature

The first order of such a business was to create an international group that knows about taxonomy and that could describe what needs to get done. Welcome to the Global Taxonomy Initiative (GTI), a team that has been providing advice to the Secretariat and the 193 countries who have been part of the CBD since 1998.

Logo of the Global Taxonomy Initiative.

Image: © Global Taxonomy Initiative

Working with the staff of the Convention, the GTI established focal points in each of the countries and created a communication network among them. In Canada, the focal point is the Canadian Museum of Nature. Canada is also taking a turn at leading the GTI (also done by the Canadian Museum of Nature). The network exchanges information about taxonomic needs, best practices and other information, and news about the field. The GTI has also developed a programme of work that addresses the steps in gaining more scientific capacity, including a strategy for the next 10 years.

These plans are always ambitious and hopeful. Even though there are not enough taxonomists to meet the growing challenges in conserving and sustainably using biodiversity, the ones we have are doing great things.

You will never find more dedicated, interesting characters. And they are the best people to have along when you walk in the woods or snorkel through the weeds. These experts work in many scientific settings, but for a really good demonstration of what they do, visit your local natural-history museum. That is where many taxonomists do their research, and the results are regularly on display.

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