Species under threat due to taxonomic uncertainty
CONFUSION about the international classification of species could be hampering conservation efforts, exposing species to illegal trade and reduced protection.
These concerns are published in Nature today by Charles Darwin University Research Institute for the Environment and Livelihoods Professor Stephen Garnett and Southern Cross University Dean of Graduate Studies Professor Les Christidis.
"Species are one of the building blocks of modern biology, from conservation through to agriculture," Professor Garnett said.
"Uncertainty about species' definitions is like having bricks that vary in size - the structures built with them are pretty shaky."
Professor Christidis, one of the world's leading experts on Australian birds, said that defining species was a complex task that required the taxonomic community to agree on a shared set of principles.
"At the moment there are at least 30 definitions of the term 'species' with no objective, overarching body to decide which is best."
Professor Garnett said that the choice of species concept was not just an academic exercise.
"Take cannabis - it could be subdivided into six species, some having psychotic effects, some not," Professor Garnett said.
"But if the species was split there could be big consequences for past convictions."
In another example, Professor Christidis said moves to classify the killer whales into three separate species had the potential to cause unnecessary complication and confusion.
"The result would be that just one of the new species would be protected by legislation - the rest could be hunted because they wouldn't be covered under current laws," he said.
Professor Garnett said that conservation was severely affected by taxonomic uncertainty.
"People are building business around threatened species," he said.
"A sudden change in taxonomy can mean a population isn't threatened any more, or there can suddenly be lots of new species to protect - far more than the conservation budget can cope with."
Professor Christidis said taxonomists like him would welcome better regulation of taxonomy.
"We hope to work with the International Union of Biological Sciences to create a taxonomic commission that will apply standards across all life forms," he said.
"Taxonomy is too important a science to allow vagueness in the definition of a species."