Although the likely effects of projected climate change are being widely studied, we are just scratching the surface with regard of its long-term consequences. Among the many areas of concern, changes in temperature regimes are altering species ranges; variation in rain patterns is affecting plant survival; and abnormally high sea temperatures are causing coral bleaching. But, one of the most extreme consequences is species extinction.
As species become extinct, their ecological interactions also disappear. It is like randomly removing parts of a car. Removal of brakes, windscreen wipers or lights may not be noticed until you need to drive or stop in heavy rain at night; then their absence may be catastrophic. The analogy in nature is even more uncertain, because without a complete understanding of the biosphere we do not know what parts are critical under what circumstances. In the absence of taxonomic records, extinction of a species may be like removing an unknown piece of a machine we do not fully understand.
When it comes to biodiversity, taxonomy is the eyes of humanity. Unless we record the species we have now, it will not be possible to monitor their future decline or extinction (See also In praise of taxonomy).
The “Taxonomic Impediment”
It has been estimated that there are approximately 8.7 million species on earth and in the ocean, of which only 1.3 million have been described. Currently, the completion of the Catalog of Life faces two main challenges.
The first challenge is directly related to climate change. We are facing the Sixth Mass Extinction. Mass extinctions have occurred five times in the history of animals, one involving the dinosaurs. Due to the actual biodiversity crisis, many species could become extinct before we can even describe them. It is like the pages of a book being burned before they are read.
The second challenge is the extinction of taxonomists themselves. Although the scientific description of species is valued and appreciated by those who understand why it is important, taxonomy itself is extremely underfunded. It has become increasingly difficult for taxonomists to find research grants or even jobs. Taxonomy requires high levels of specialization, and once the continuity between old and young generations is broken the learning curve for someone new to become an expert becomes much steeper. In the context of climate change, it is more important than ever to have a critical mass of funded and active taxonomists that can recognize biodiversity changes before it is too late to do something.
The role of Research Stations
Field stations have an important role on generating a deep understanding of our planet and the changes it is currently experiencing. Lizard Island Research Station, with more than 40 years of research, is a sentinel of the health of the northern section of the Great Barrier Reef. After the strong bleaching events of 2016 and 2017 the reef radically changed, but thanks to decades of research scientists will be able to understand how the reef is reacting so we can better prepare and adapt for future events.
Understanding the valuable of this type of information, the Lizard Island Research Foundation supports taxonomic research in understudied groups of organisms. This support fulfils an urgent need, which not many other agencies have had the vision to address.
The Arachnida of Lizard Island
Thanks to the Lizard Island Reef Research Foundation Fellowship, I am caring out the project “Exploring the arachnid diversity of the Lizard Island group, Great Barrier Reef”. Its main goal is to record arachnid diversity in the Lizard Island Group. Although they represent a significant proportion of the biodiversity on islands along the Great Barrier Reef, the arachnids have been historically poorly studied. Due to the rapid environmental changes occurring on the region it appears as a pressing necessity to create a base line for future monitoring of the terrestrial biodiversity.
During April 2019 the Lizard Island Research Station served as my base for collecting specimens. The following month I worked at the Queensland Museum in Brisbane, and the Australian Museum in Sydney for taxonomic identification. After publication in the scientific literature, the results of this research will be presented on this platform. These findings will also populate the Arachnida section of the Lizard Island Field Guide.
In the same way as the ecosystem consequences of species extinction are like removing the pieces of a running car. Taxonomy is the eyes of humanity when it comes to knowing biodiversity. Thanks to the support of the Lizard Island Reef Research Foundation Fellowship, my research will add to the knowledge of eight-legged animals in a remote group of islands on the Great Barrier Reef. This will be my grain of sand, but there is still a lot of work to do and the clock is ticking quickly.
California Academy of Sciences
2019 Lizard Island Reef Research Foundation Post Doctoral Fellow