Taxonomy as a Science for Scotland

Published on 8 October 2010 in Ecosystems and biodiversity

Photo of the earth from Apollo 17 mission, 1972. Copyrighted by NASA.


If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it

Taxonomy is the science of ordering, classifying and naming species diversity. It represents one of the largest challenges that humanity has ever undertaken, as it is estimated that there are 5-30 million species, with 1.78 million of them having been described. In Britain, the charity Plantlife has recently highlighted a second challenge, by summarizing the vulnerability of taxonomic scientists themselves. With 4 of 6 specialisms deemed vulnerable, endangered or worse, the overall picture is that taxonomists responsible for a substantial part of biodiversity - plants and fungi - are the least well-represented in the sciences in Britain. Unfortunately, a similar picture of the rarity of taxonomists is a recurrent pattern in many countries. This leaves us with the important question: are taxonomists worth saving?

Key Points

Botanical diversity within Britain is perhaps the best known anywhere on Earth. Why do we still need taxonomists? Although Britain has perhaps the best studied flora on the planet, there are several reasons to maintain support for taxonomy: (i) continuing discovery, (ii) building momentum, and (iii) putting the pieces together.

Continuing discovery. An example of frontline discovery is provided by RBGE’s focus on Scottish cryptogams (lichens, fungi, mosses, liverworts, algae, and ferns). The lichen flora of Britain now stands at 1873 species. There has been a 37% increase in the number of known lichen species since 1973 (1368 species), and a 26% increase over 1992 levels (1487 species). The knowledge of the British lichen flora is the best in the world, but the rate of species discovery remains high. It is a simple statement of fact that if we don’t know that a species exists within our country, we can’t effectively conserve it. Conserving biodiversity is a UN Millennium Development Goal (Target 7b), enshrined in the Convention of Biological Diversity, and the UK and Scotland are committed to biodiversity protection: Scotland’s ambition is to be ‘recognised as a world leader in biodiversity by 2030’. Taxonomists are essential to this ambition.

Building momentum. Having a well-known flora allows the ‘consolidation’ phase of learning, during which taxonomists can aid with downstream technologies, and can develop and disseminate knowledge to other less well-known areas. A capacity generated over 200 years of scientific endeavour puts the UK and Scotland in a leading academic position – this huge investment is in danger of being lost forever, and the benefits to Scotland, and to our partner countries across the world, will never be fully realised.

Putting the pieces together. Taxonomists maintain the quality of knowledge required for authoritative species identification, which is disseminated during training courses and in field guides: in Scotland, we are in the fortunate position of being able to identify species, making it possible to ask imperative questions about the evolutionary patterns that shape diversity and the ecological drivers that maintain or degrade it. Genes and species are the nuts and bolts which build ecosystems – they are the basis out of which ecosystem function and services emerge. Our knowledge of their taxonomy and identification is essential to manage biodiversity during a period of environmental change.

Research Undertaken

The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh specialises in the taxonomy of plants and fungi. Our mission is to explore and explain plant and fungal diversity for a better future; our science encompasses all the relevant elements of modern taxonomy. Examples from our lichen research reflect the taxonomic science of RBGE as a whole:

  • We provide fundamental taxonomic support by describing new species. Documenting lichen biodiversity, RBGE scientists have described 61 new species in the last 10 years alone, of which 19 are known from Scotland. Our long legacy of research on lichens is founded on an actively-maintained and frequently-consulted reference collection, a herbarium of ca. 36K British specimens.
  • We champion modern technologies to streamline the flow of information from our collections and taxonomic research, to the end-user. In a project to test the power of employing molecular data for species identification on a floristic scale, 87% of lichen samples could be discriminated – a figure that could be matched by only very few specialist taxonomists in the field. RBGE spearheads international efforts to modernise and streamline this flow of information, taking advantage of cutting-edge tools.
  • We integrate research on the patterns of biodiversity with the processes that drive it and the forces that threaten it (conservation biology). Research to integrate ecological processes across spatial-temporal scales bridges between the control of species biogeography by larger-scale drivers - landscape-scale habitat structure, pollution and climate (including climate change) - and the species/community response to internal habitat dynamics. Rresults are used in the development of conservation strategy, to protect against and redress impacts ranging from local habitat loss to global climate change.
  • We provide life-long learning in plants, the environment as well as individual and social enrichment through our varied activities.

Policy Implications

The study of taxonomy has profound policy implications in delivering human ambitions for biodiversity conservation, from global (Convention on Biological Diversity), through Europe and the UK (Habitats Directive, Biodiversity action Plan), to Scotland (Scotland’s Biodiversity Strategy). In a small country with competing demands across multiple sectors, taxonomy plays a vital role in ensuring a threshold of suitable habitat is maintained and expanded to conserve Scotland’s rich biodiversity heritage.

As primary producers, plants are the starting point for ecosystem structure, function and services. Understanding and managing our plant resource is under-appreciated and yet essential to human survival, and relevant to all aspects of human and social well-being.


Drs Rebecca Yahr and Chris Ellis, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh


Ecosystems and biodiversity

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