Monday, March 21, 2016

The case for plant systematics in universities

The diverse creatures of planet Earth are being destroyed faster than taxonomists
can document them or have any chance to save them. Logging, agriculture,
mining, urban expansion, pollution, and other factors related to human population
growth are the causes of biodiversity loss. 
Every university biology department should hire a plant systematist.  Here are the reasons why.

1. We are in the midst of a "biodiversity crisis"  a massive extinction of species comparable to the one that saw the extinction of the dinosaurs.  This one could be even worse, however, because it is human-caused, and if we can't bring our wasteful practices, demand for natural resources, and unchecked population growth under control, the losses will be catastrophic.

Why is biodiversity so important?  The billions of species of life on this planet are not isolated, like zoo animals in their contained display areas.  Each species lives in the context of many other species with which it interacts in complex, unpredictable, and often unknown ways.  For simplicity, we can call this a food web.  The removal of a single species affects all the others, maybe in a minor way, but maybe in a catastrophic way.  The removal of wolves from an area, for example, usually results in  the overpopulation of deer and other grazers, and that in turn leads to decimation of herbaceous vegetation.  The removal of many species, or an entire biotic community at one time may lead to disruption of the water cycle, soil erosion, climate change, the cycling of  carbon dioxide and oxygen, or other serious ecosystem imbalances.

Plant taxonomists gather plant materials from the wild, store them as dried
specimens in herbaria, then  analyze, describe, name and classify them.
Herbaria thus represent depositories of a vast amount of information about
the kinds of plants that exist, their distributions, habitat preferences,
ecological interactions, and indigenous uses.
A particularly aggravating dimension of the crisis is that many of the species going extinct have never been named, described, or even been seen by scientists.  The traditional practice of taxonomy focuses on the collection of specimens, their preservation and storage in museums or herbaria, naming and describing those species, and developing classifications, practical identification keys, catalogues, and field guides to the species.

The discovery and documentation of the kinds of organisms on this planet, despite nearly three centuries of effort by dedicated taxonomists, is by the most generous of estimates, only half done.  A general consensus suggests however that we have documented only about 15% of the species that probably exist on Earth (Wilson 2004).  Whatever unique ecological, genetic, or biochemical properties might be possessed by the remaining 85% of the world's biodiversity could be lost forever before they are even known.  This is surely one of the most pressing issues facing humanity, considered by some to be even a greater challenge than mitigating the effects of climate change (Science Daily, January 2012). Wilson (2004) suggests, however, that completing the inventory of Earth's creatures could be completed within one generation, if the number of taxonomists working worldwide (estimated at 6000 in 2004) were doubled.  Modern techniques, including use of high-resolution imaging, genomic mapping, and communication of taxonomic information over the internet, will aid this process, but only in the hands of trained taxonomists.

2. One very real and concrete way in which plant systematics, specifically plant identification skills, is vital, is in both theoretical and applied ecological studies.  Alejandro Bortolus (2008) documented the many kinds of disastrous cascades of errors that can occur when ecologists fail to verify the identity of plant species cited or manipulated in their studies.  One example particularly stands out:

"During the late 1970s, a team of geneticists, managers, architects, politicians, biologists, and landscapers got involved in the transplant of propagules of the cordgrass Spartina foliosa from Humboldt Bay to Creekside Park in San Francisco, California, as part of a restoration project involving the only Spartina species native to the West Coast. Using an esthetic criterion, they selected gray clumped mats of S. densiflora, believing they were a good-looking growth form of the native S. foliosa, and they did not question the species identification (after all, it was the only Spartina species described for the region by then). In fact, biologists had mentioned that the plants on Humboldt Bay looked different from the San Francisco native, but no significant attempt was made to further identify it (which would have amended the error) until after it had been introduced into Creekside Park (30). It was not before a number of phenological and ecological differences became highly evident between the transplants and local specimens that botanists realized they were probably working with a different species than presently thought. About 30 years later, the transplanted specimens were correctly recognized as S. densiflora (31). By then, the repeated transplant of this species seamed to have triggered a latent invasive ability in S. densiflora, which after decades of apparent inactivity expanded its original distributional range, massively displacing native organisms and changing the entire physiognomy of regional landscapes along the West Coast" (Bortolus 2008).

One can imagine similar disasters in pharmacological studies of plant derived compounds, though I have not yet seen any compilations of errors in that field.  There are, however, many instances of poisoning or other harm caused by misidentification of herbs by commercial interests and amateurs (Lewis and Lewis, 2003, Chapter 3).  In a related field, one that could serve as a basis for pharmacological investigation, Luczai (2010) found a significant percentage of errors in Polish ethnobotanical papers, even when voucher specimens were deposited.  Failing to correctly identify plant materials in any kind of study most importantly disconnects the study from the body of literature associated with that species, and connects it with the wrong body of literature.

By misidentifying plant species in scientific studies, researchers risk more than disasters like that mentioned above.  One of the essential features  of a modern scientific paper is the "Materials and Methods" section, which if properly done, provides information necessary for the experiment in question to be verified by replication or other independent means.  If researchers do not explicitly state how and by whom their plant materials were identified, and/or did not file voucher specimens of each species, their results are non-replicable, unreliable, and potentially misleading.  This is bad science!

  Further quoting from Bortolus (2008): "62.5% of these modern [ecological] studies are devoid of any supporting information justifying or guaranteeing the correct identification of the organisms studied or manipulated.  Only 2.5% of the analyzed papers reported that specimen vouchers were deposited in a scientific institution.  Medicine, biochemistry, paleontology, and geomorphology are some of the disciplines in which misidentifications could generate great loss of time, knowledge, money, and even human lives."   These conclusions were  verified and amplified by Vink et al. (2012). So biologists of all stripes need taxonomists as partners, not only to prevent disastrous errors, but also to improve the design of their research so as to target the most relevant plant materials, and to enhance replicability and credibility of their research.   For that reason biology departments should be including plant taxonomists on their faculty.

The need for taxonomists, or systematists, to document the diversity of life has never been greater.   Yet ironically, the number of taxonomists being trained and employed, has declined drastically over the past few decades.   Why?

The National Science Foundation had a program from the mid 1990's to 2010 for training scientists in taxonomy, called PEET (Partnerships for Enhancing Expertise in Taxonomy)  mid-90's to about 2010.  It was successful in turning out a number of young taxonomists, but the problem was that they had a difficult time finding work as practicing taxonomists afterwards.  "But as many PEET alumni (peetsters) are experiencing, taxonomic expertise is rarely required, or even relevant, when it comes to securing a job, especially in academia." (Agnarsson and Kuntner 2007). So the prejudice against taxonomists was already entrenched at that time.  What about that prejudice?

In all fairness, Biology has been changing rapidly for several decades.  Academic departments have been scrambling to keep up with the newest expertise in genetics, theoretical ecology, and cell biology, typically with colleges relatively stingy about providing new faculty lines.  So older areas of expertise were sacrificed for the newer ones.  Except in institutions with well-established and productive botany programs, low enrollment botany departments, curricula, and degrees were often scrapped altogether.  Plant-based ecologists, geneticists, and cell biologists were often integrated into the new programs, but classical plant morphologists, anatomists, physiologists and taxonomists disappeared. Many herbaria were bundled up and shipped off to more stable botanical institutions.

However, there is a persistent perception by many biologists that taxonomy is old-fashioned, not engaged with cutting-edge practical or theoretical developments, or unimportant to those advanced fields.  For those that do recognize the value of taxonomy and perhaps utilize taxonomic information in their research, there is the belief that others can do it; that they can consult with taxonomists at other institutions if need be.  The fallacy is that such an attitude only strengthens the decline in the number of practicing taxonomists, making such collaboration even more difficult.

According to Wilson's estimate in 2004, we need 6000 more taxonomists globally to complete the biodiversity inventory of the Earth.  It's probably more than that now, since the last generation of taxonomists to find widespread employment, in the 1960's and 70's, has been retiring in droves during the last decade or two.  A large percentage of these will be plant taxonomists. Universities with varied biology programs can help reach that goal, and include:

      a. universities with unstaffed or understaffed herbaria, some of which have been essentially mothballed;
      b. universities with otherwise strong biology programs, particularly in ecology and evolution, where a major herbarium is nearby.  That would be the case, for example, in New York City, Washington, DC, Boston, St. Louis, MO, Claremont, CA, or Berkeley, CA;
      c. the existing major herbaria themselves, whether privately or governmentally funded, which should be encouraged to hire  additional taxonomists, including some who could teach part-time at local universities.

3.  Plant systematics is bigger than taxonomy.  Departments who feel that they cannot support a conventional plant taxonomist can benefit greatly from  a more broadly defined plant systematist, who could work with ecologists and geneticists on biodiversity issues.  Plant systematists include scientists who are taxonomically knowledgeable, but working on a broader array of related issues.  They ask questions like: what is the geographical and ecological range of each species? How does each survive and interact with other species?  How did these species evolve?  Why are some species endangered while others run amok when transported outside of their natural range? What properties of each species, particularly medicinal, nutritional, or structural, are directly useful to us as we face questions of survival and quality of life in the coming centuries?  (See Michener et al. 1970, for a more extensive discussion of systematics from the time of its emergence.).

Employing a plant systematist, who may not need regular or frequent use of a herbarium, opens up new opportunities for universities to get more involved in current issues associated with the biodiversity crisis. This crisis is gaining more and more attention in the media, by the public, and eventually (we hope) by politicians.  That means funding is and will be available for biodiversity research. Such funding opportunities require the participation of systematists.   Though the PEET program and the Systematic Biology and Biodiversity programs have been discontinued, funding from NSF is a moving target, and similar programs may rise from the dead.  Currently, NSF is offering an interesting program called  “Dimensions of Biodiversity,” which targets the interaction of phylogenetic, genetic, and functional aspects of biodiversity – a perfect opportunity for collaboration between plant systematists, ecologists and geneticists.  Grants for research related to biodiversity can also be obtained from the USDA, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Natural Resources and Conservation Service. There are also many private organizations such as the Florida Native Plant Society, JRS Biodiversity Foundation, and the Rainforest Biodiversity Coalition, that fund research in biodiversity.

4. A final reason why university biology departments, particularly smaller ones, should hire plant systematists is this:  If you're going to hire just one "token" botanist to provide balance in your program, you would best be served to hire a plant systematist.  Plant systematists by nature have a broad knowledge of plants and their diverse adaptations.  They can undertake modest, inexpensive field projects with which to engage undergraduate students  They are also likely to be knowledgeable of plants useful in medicine, nutrition and technology. They have a lot of stories to tell, neat ways to engage students, recruiting some for further study, enlightening the rest against plant blindness.   In addition, the kind of information and expertise that a plant systematist can provide is vital to many other disciplines, including  environmental science, anthropology, historical geology, horticulture, pharmacology, medicine, forensics, organic chemistry, history, the fine arts, and material science.  A plant systematist would be a valuable resource to an entire university community.

Literature cited:

Agnarsson, Ingi and Matjaž Kuntner. 2007. Systematic Biology Volume 56, Issue 3Pp. 531-539.

Bortolus, Alejandro.  2008. Error Cascades in the Biological Sciences: The Unwanted Consequences of Using Bad Taxonomy in Ecology, Ambio Vol. 37, No. 2, March 2008, pp 114-118.

Lewis, W. H. and M. P. F. Elvin-Lewis. 2003. Medical Botany, ed. 2. John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken, NJ.

Łuczaj, Łukasz J.  2010. Plant identification credibility in ethnobotany: a closer look at Polish ethnographic studies. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine. 2010; 6: 36.

Michener, Charles D., John O. Corliss, Richard S. Cowan, Peter H. Raven, Curtis W. Sabrosky, Donald S. Squires, and G. W. Wharton. 1970. Systematics In Support of Biological Research. Division of Biology and Agriculture, National Research Council. Washington, D.C. 25 pp.

Vink, Cor J., Pierre Paquin and Robert H. Cruickshank. 2012.  Taxonomy and Irreproducible Biological Science. BioScience Volume 62, Issue 5Pp. 451-452.

Wilson, E. O. 2004. Taxonomy as a fundamental discipline. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B. Volume: 359:739.