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Published 15 December 2015

National treasures under threat – call to support New Zealand’s taxonomic collections

More resources and a coordinated approach are needed to safeguard and grow New Zealand’s taxonomic collections which are intrinsic to supporting sectors of New Zealand life from economic growth to human health, says an expert panel of the Royal Society of New Zealand on the release of their expert advice on taxonomic collections today.

Dr Wendy Nelson, chair of the National Taxonomic Collections in New Zealand panel that has conducted a review, says taxonomy is how we understand New Zealand’s living things, allowing us to identify native and non-native species but also identify pests, weeds and toxic organisms.

Wendy Nelson

Professor Wendy Nelson

New Zealand has 29 collections which help us do this with 12 million species sets held in 20 institutions around the country – museums, Crown Research Institutes and universities – but eroding funding threatens the collections and the taxonomic workforce, she said.

“Taxonomy allows us to understand New Zealand’s unique flora and fauna – 50 per cent of which is found nowhere else in the world – but it also allows us to make the most of opportunities in trade, health, and our environment, and to meet our international obligations.”

“From carrying out the review, we have heard that funding declines over at least 20 years have resulted in loss of expertise and access to these important biological collections. Many retiring taxonomists have not been replaced and those still working in the area have little time to devote to this important work.

“Recommendations in this report have been reached through a wide-ranging collaborative process and the collection holders are committed to working together to preserve and grow these collections and build systems for better sharing of information, but they need resources and stable funding to do so.”

Dr Nelson says the collections are a ‘treasure trove’ of information collected over nearly 250 years and new technologies mean the rate that new species are being discovered and described is increasing rapidly.

“We still do not have a good understanding of New Zealand’s biota. Seventy per cent of arthropods, a group that includes insects, spiders and crustaceans such as crayfish, remain undescribed.  Even with New Zealand plants, which you might imagine we would have a good handle on, we estimate that fifteen per cent are not described.  Even less well understood are the organisms living in New Zealand’s vast marine realm. It is estimated that 80% of our native species live in our large marine zone but only 1% of this has been surveyed.  

“We face a range of challenges with increasing biosecurity risks associated with trade and tourism, and changing climates affecting the species that are able to live in New Zealand. This means that taxonomic research is more important than ever in equipping us for the future and providing essential baseline knowledge.”

Professor Richard Bedford, Royal Society of New Zealand President, commended the panel for its in-depth and consultative process and said that the resulting recommendations were clear.

“To preserve and build our taxonomic collections, which is vital, we must invest in core infrastructure, support collaboration, and provide long term professional development and job security.”

He emphasised that having a good handle on New Zealand’s biota is not ‘nice to know’ but ‘need to know’ with implications for the economy and many areas of national life.

“An effective biological collections’ infrastructure is critical in the defense of the economy, environment and society against pests, diseases, and weeds which currently cost New Zealand $2.45 billion annually, and in ensuring market access for New Zealand’s $1.5 billion seafood exports, for example.”

“Our biological heritage is part of our identity. In addition, collections and taxonomic research can provide key information about taonga species and assist with biodiversity and resource management with direct relevance to Māori.”

Demand for skilled taxonomists will likely increase as climate change shifts the geographical regions where species can survive, including disease-carrying mosquitoes, and changes in ocean currents could bring new species to New Zealand that will need to be identified, he said.

Professor Geoff Boxhall FRS of the Natural History Museum, London says that New Zealand is obligated to preserve and build its taxonomic collections to meet international obligations.

“All nations have an international responsibility to identify, monitor and conserve their biodiversity, and taxonomic collections are essential infrastructure for supporting accurate and standardised species identification. 

“The declines in funding for taxonomic collections and the loss of taxonomic expertise highlighted in this report are worrying trends and need to be reversed for New Zealand to continue to meet its international obligations in this area, particularly around ensuring online access to information. Other countries, such as Canada, Australia and the UK, have reported declines in taxonomic workforce, but none to the extent seen in New Zealand. 

“I fully support the recommendations of this report - changes are urgently needed to support and grow New Zealand’s taxonomic collections.”

Donald Hobern, Executive Secretary, Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) said that providing free and open access to the data held in New Zealand’s biological collections will be of immense value to the biodiversity research and policy communities, both globally and within the country itself.

“GBIF has greatly appreciated New Zealand’s involvement and investment in our global network over the past fifteen years — however, as the Royal Society of New Zealand’s report correctly identifies, this investment will bring much greater returns if it is accompanied by mobilization of more national data using the tools and practices developed through GBIF’s collaborative community for cost-effective publication, integration, discovery and use of digital biodiversity data.”

The members of the National Taxonomic Collections in New Zealand panel are: 

  • Dr Wendy Nelson MNZM FRSNZ (Chair), Principal Scientist, Marine Biology, NIWA and Professor, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland
  • Dr Ilse Breitwieser, Portfolio Leader/Capability Leader for the Systematics Team, Landcare Research
  • Professor Ewan Fordyce FRSNZ, Department of Geology, University of Otago
  • Dr Janet Bradford-Grieve ONZM FRSNZ, Emeritus Researcher, Marine Biology, NIWA
  • Dr David Penman, Executive Secretary, New Zealand Organisms’ Register
  • Dr Nick Roskruge, Senior Lecturer/Kaiarahi Maori, Institute of Agriculture and Environment, Massey University
  • Dr Tom Trnski, Head of Natural Sciences, Auckland War Memorial Museum
  • Dr Susan Waugh, Senior Curator Sciences, Te Papa
  • Dr Colin Webb FRSNZ, environmental scientist
Source: Royal Society Te Apārangi