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…


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.


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?

1 Like

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.


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.

1 Like

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.

1 Like

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.


This topic was automatically closed 60 days after the last reply. New replies are no longer allowed.