Research priorities vis-a-vis conservation needs

In reading a recent issue of Aroideana (not yet available to non-members of IAS), I find, as is so often the case with that publication, several articles by Tom Croat describing new species. What is conspicuously absent from these articles is phylogenetic trees or any discussion of genetic analysis. What is conspicuously present is mention of habitats that have not yet been adequately explored, and species descriptions focused on the morphological differences between the specimens from these newly visited localities and known species from other localities.

We often see articles advocating for conservation which say that most of the world’s biodiversity is in danger of being lost before it can be documented. In one of the aforementioned articles by Croat, I read, “Anthurium is the largest genus in Araceae, with 1144 published species, and is one of the world’s largest plant genera with an estimated potential of 3000 species.” So that means that just over one-third of this genus has been documented. The unknown species are probably in localities that have not yet been properly explored, and will be brought to light by going to these places and finding them, not by redrawing the phylogenetic trees of known taxa.

Meanwhile, what are we doing? Arguing about whether the Gulf fritillary is Agraulis or Dione. We already know a lot about this butterfly and its conservation needs; will any of that change according which genus we decide to put it in? I am much more concerned about that unknown butterfly living in a mountain range that is about to be deforested before its biodiversity has been explored.

Cladistic analysis is taxonomists’ shiny new toy, but when it comes to where to allocate research dollars, I don’t know that it should be as big a priority as it has been made.


I assume you are talking about “big picture” phylogenetics as opposed to the very essential usage of genetics when it comes to taxonomy (species descriptions). As has been said “you cannot protect what you do not know” and you need to do the taxonomy before the species can be protected or even studied in detail for life history. Protecting a species with no taxonomic description or diagnosis from relatives is not going to get any conservation backing. Conservation also tends to be MUCH MUCH MUCH more expensive than any taxonomic or phylogenetic study.

The label, like for the genus name, is important for the taxonomy, but bouncing a species back and forth between two genera without any strong consensus either way seems to be a waste of money.


Why don’t we protect these places first and study them later? The blame is on capitalism and corrupt governments, not whether scientists are defining species with morphology or phylogeny.


I don’t know if this makes it better or worse (from your perspective), but after sifting carefully through the acknowledgments and looking at the funding sources, it looks like this whole thing was basically a side project of some folks at UT Southwestern who are computational biologists and funded as such. (The two grants cited are to Grishin and also acknowledged in projects having nothing to do with Lepidoptera.)

In general, I think molecular methods in naturalism have moved from “arcane, expensive art exclusively overseen by hierophants” to “optimize for high throughput and low cost”–there’s less of a direct budget showdown than you might think.

You have a lot more experience in this milieu than I do, but my impression is that biodiversity protection is messy in ways that aren’t strictly dependent on funding (although there’s never enough!)–things like “How do we make sure the biodiversity reserve actually stays a reserve, rather than being quietly logged by an entrepreneurial lowlander with elastic notions of property or turned into an open-pit mine for some raison d’état”.

The question does intrigue me–I’ll ask my friends on the Ferns of Colombia project sometime roughly how the budget breaks down as far as molecular methods versus travel and collections. Almost certainly it’s dominated by personnel costs, and I expect the morphological work after a good collecting trip consumes considerably more time than the lab work…


Be careful with statements like that.

We thought we knew a lot about the Eastern Tailed Blue, until we didn’t.

The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail was the first North American butterfly depicted in publication, and the first to have its entire genome mapped. Yet it appears we have an unidentified taxon that would render all the guide books very incorrect. We don’t know the range of the closely allied Canadian Tiger nor the Appalachian Tiger.

The Ozark Swallowtail is almost identical to the very common Black Swallowtail, and that’s why it was long overlooked. Imagine if the assumption was made that the Ozarks could be deforested because they were “just Black Swallowtails.”

Citing a species as common and unworthy of study is very risky.


I imagine that the institutional and funding structures of academia play a role in facilitating certain types of research activity and discouraging others. There are very few researchers who have the luxury of having the time and freedom and resources to pursue any project they want.

A lot of funding in academia is project based, for a fixed maximum period with predefined criteria on how the funds may be used and what types of projects and/or what topics are eligible for funding according to a particular scheme.

Fieldwork is often connected with red tape, particularly if it is to take place in another country, and it must typically be organized around teaching commitments and other personal and academic duties.

Typically there are also accountability requirements – the expectation that one produces new findings and publishes results. Some lines of investigation are going to inherently be more compatible with this than others. Some are going to be more risky, in terms of providing tangible results and securing future funding for being able to continue one’s research.

There’s also a question of the training traditionally provided in the natural sciences: what types of skills researchers acquire in the processs and how they are encouraged to think about their work. A biologist might be taught how to work in the lab or the field – but not necessarily how to engage in public outreach and communication, or how to translate their research findings into actionable arguments for protecting a species or ecosystem.

It is also worth considering whether it is actually true that researchers in general are dedicating more energy to taxonomic revisions of already well-studied organisms rather than focusing on less studied organisms or describing new species in biological hotspots – or whether this perception might be skewed by the lens of using iNat. A revision of a taxon that has thousands of observations is going to cause substantial, obvious ripples compared to the publication of the description of a new species that might be quietly added to the taxonomy without much fanfare.


@spiphany very eloquent!


The reality of research is the priorities are set by funding. Most research into plants and insects is driven by agricultural concerns (= $$). Probably next up is the concern of the day, which right now is Global Warming (in contrast, note the lack of funding to figure out what’s in the Amazon before it’s all cut down.) I’ve been waiting for ten months for genetic analysis because the institution can’t slide it into a funded project.

Field work is sadly limited, with far less funding that in the past. That said, despite cries of such, the fact is that much field work conducted during the age of discovery and through say 1950s was done for (in order) financial reasons and by citizen scientists. Field work by citizen scientists (including those who do it for profit) has ALWAYS exceeded that by professionals in terms of time and discoveries. This is not new. But as @spiphany cited, “red tape” is the worst impediment a citizen researcher faces- in some cases, such as Brazil, they simply don’t want people poking around taking photos, discovering something new. In other cases, such as USFWS import licensing, it’s just a government red tape scheme that’s grown to be self-sustaining and the focus is on make-work to keep jobs.

There is reasonable foundation to the argument that we need little new field work, since the professionals are backlogged- note institutional insect collections which are backlogged with 80 year old papered specimens. My opinion is that the problem isn’t field workers, it’s failure to fund the institutions that collate and curate the specimens; one such significant museum collection I know when from 11 people to 2 in less than a decade. Sad.

As far as taxonomic revision- how can one have a foundation of data without knowing what is in that foundation? If we lump multiple taxa under one and proceed from there, well bad data leads only to bad actions.

Finally, when decisions are made based on cost rather than “best” is when we fail. If a change makes every field book obsolete, or forces a significant effort in change on iNaturalist is immaterial if the best path is to do it right.


Going along with every proposed split is not necessarily the best path.

Interestingly enough, now that I have read further in the Ariodeana issue that started this thread, there were several synoymization papers, too. Again, not based on fancy-dancy genetic analyses, but on careful observation of morphology. Interestingly, in two of these papers about species that had been originally described in the 19th century, unpublished paintings made from the original collected specimens and “lost” in the museum’s archives were made lectotypes, because they showed the characteristics described in the original description better than existing physical specimens.

When you say “almost,” do you mean to imply that there is a morphological difference that can be observed if one observes carefully?

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I’m not a splitter, however genetic analysis of species and complexes (a relatively new term rarely used in the past) is splitting. Splitting how? Now we’re into manmade concepts. Before genetics, a species is was a unique taxon that didn’t successfully interbreed with other species; and, those that did were conveniently ignored. But now with genetics, using the early rules of % of differentiation (and now other rules) taxa are being split. We make these metrics up to reflect the former (OK, still) flawed concept of species as accurately as possible. On one hand, perhaps the metrics aren’t correct (is there a black/ white split?) but on the other hand, we now know, whether two taxon are split or not, that they are somehow different. Different may warrant protective measures.

That’s a brutal question, as I’m banging my head on that one (not the Ozark, but another swallowtail) and it’s probably my next paper.

Specific to the Ozark & Black Swallowtails (which is an excellent example of what’s frustrating me): the original description of the Ozark listed morphological differentiators from the Black. The author’s original notes had more as well, as did subsequent publications, not of all which are in agreement. If you list ALL of the differentiators, some of which are noted as variable, many if not all Black swallowtails could be morphologically identified as Ozark.

But wait, there’s more! Various specimen photographs appear on various institutional collection/ research websites. When I look at some of those I say “huh? Doesn’t match the original description of Ozark.” So either the ID is wrong, or (my belief) the morphology of Ozark overlaps with Black. That said, we know, thanks to genetics, that the Ozark is a very distant relative of the Black though they are virtually indistinguishable.

Back to generalities: It appears that in some butterfly cases (not necessarily Ozark) the authors of the original description “cherry pick” specimens to image that reflect the morphological differentiators. Or maybe it’s just luck. Case in point: I had the greatest fortune this summer to capture over 20 fresh specimens of the Mid Summer Tiger Swallowtail in one place within a two hour period; meaning, they are genetically the same. In reading the morphological description of the Appalachian Swallowtail, I can cherry pick specimens from this one defined group that fit the description; others match somewhat, arguably some match not at all.

So morphology, often being variable, has its issues. For centuries, that’s all we had. Now we have another tool with genetics. Do we need to look at systematic and taxonomic rules? Maybe but nature doesn’t follow our rules, so no matter how we tweak them, something will still be deficient or wrong.

Going back to the original question/ hypothesis, if one ignores man’s “species” concept a bit, and we think instead “rather unique” then we have greater understanding, thanks to genetics, of taxa and can hopefully assign conservation priorities (which is what I’m doing now!) Without the genetics to back up my claims, I really can’t cry for conservation of the taxon I’m studying; but with it doors are opened to increased efforts, funding, etc.


And this, it seems to me, given other comments you have made, to be your real complaint: not taxonomy vs. conservation (the two activities are not mutually exclusive), but taxonomic revisions that you consider unnecessary based on methods that you feel do not provide a meaningful way to understand biological diversity.

There is certainly a debate that can be had about how species are defined and whether genetic analysis is the best way to do this – but it is a very different discussion than how research priorities are determined.


That debate is growing hot. One of the top Lepidoptera authorities recently published a paper attacking some recent taxonomic changes resulting from genetics alone. He made some good points, though admittedly it’s clear that the main driver was his inability to adapt to this new tool.

That said, I can tell you right now that morphology alone is insufficient. It has been with Lepidoptera for a long time. Examination of genetalia has long been used to identify taxa that are morphologically externally identical. Beyond that, other tools include larval food plants, larva morphology (everyone thinks of butterflies as adults), flight period, altitude, dipause, and more.

Genetic study recently (published this year) left Lepidopterists gobsmacked when it was demonstrated that the Asian swallowtail Papilio maraho is not of Asian lineage, but of the Pterourus group- a North American group which includes the Tiger Swallowtail. Wow!!! The same paper separated maraho and elwesi, so the fact that that taxon exists in iNat is wrong (but, no observations)

In my studies of Tiger Swallowtails I was convinced that morphology alone could be used to separate glaucus, canadensis, appalachiensis, and the undescribed Mid Summer Tiger (MST.) After all, there are numerous resources to properly ID each taxon, to discern between it and other taxa. But now, years later, I say rubbish. Yes, in many cases one can use the guides to differentiate, but in some cases- 20% maybe- I can pull out a specimen of one taxon, claim it’s another, and based on morphology the lie would be valid.

Morphology is one tool. Genetics is another. Man is funny, it’s always either-or when in fact it’s all of the above.


I agree that morphology alone is not sufficient for many taxa. I would also note that we are getting to, if not already at, the point where it is easier (and probably quicker and cheaper) to run a DNA sample than to examine morphology of genitalia for many specimens. It also requires much less technical training. DNA is also increasingly become accessible to average citizens for a modest fee ($10ish and dropping). Eventually we’ll have tricorders that can do on demand DNA sequencing, but, even though we aren’t there yet, and morphology is still the easiest type of character/trait to use for identifying many specimens, DNA is closing that gap quite rapidly in some taxa.

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setting aside my taxonomy opinions, this whole thing seems to suggest strongly that for applied conservation, we should be focusing on ecosystem level conservation, rather than only species level. Whether a genetically isolated patch of butterflies on an Ozark mountain is technically a separate species, subspecies, or just regional variation, the habitat on that mountain is crucial to the survival of that species and the other ones that interact with it. From the applied end, we need to figure out a way to steer the public and policy makers like politicians away from focusing only on species (especially rare or cute ones) and towards also recognizing the importance of ecosystem-level conservation.


I do hope we get the trichorders soon, but until then 10 dollars isn’t actually cheap for monitoring. We visit maybe 30 plots a year each with on average 40 plant species so even in the best case scenario that’s 12,000 dollars worth of samples if we went only by genetics. I know no one is proposing that but… it’s a real mixed blessing because it will be another thing driving a wedge between people on the land and people with resources to get the trichorders.

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That would go against the current ethos of conservation, which is to preserve ecosystems. And to conduct restoration/reintroduction with local stock when possible.

When we read a manual on vegetation restoration, and we see that it says to replant from sources in the same watershed if they are available, this does not imply that the population in each watershed needs to be described as a new species. Yet in many ways, that seems to be the direction that some taxonomists are going, because the reason we are advised to plant from sources in the same watershed is because they are locally adapted – hence genetically different from those in another watershed – hence a distinct clade in the current taxonomic approach.


I wish this “current” ethos was truly that prevalent. I whole heartedly agree that this is the ideal, but unfortunately I wouldn’t yet call this the norm.