Supporting European taxonomy -
current state and possible future actions
The participants in the EPBRS Meeting held under the Italian Presidency in Florence, 20-24
November 2003 expressed their unanimous concern that taxonomy which is the basic yet often
concealed and forgotten background for sustainable management and sound conservation of
biodiversity has not been recognized among the priorities of FP 6.
A decision was taken to organize a round consultation on the level of taxonomy research in Europe
and the importance of this scientific discipline for reaching the target “to halt the biodiversity by
2010” and to prepare a document to be presented to the Steering Committee of the EPBRS in
support of taxonomy and its recognition as one of the priorities in the forthcoming calls of FP6.
The discussion was organized by the national bioplatforms in the countries represented in the
EPBRS and moderated by Dessislava Dimitrova, Bulgarian Biodiversity Platform. Scientists from
Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Bulgaria, Sweden, Slovenia, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Czech
Republic, Hungary contributed to the discussion. It has become apparent during the discussion
that taxonomic science in Europe, both in the EU and ACC countries is in severe crisis and that the
taxonomy of the European biodiversity is still far from its required completeness.
The following aspects of taxonomic research were discussed:
1. Traditions and approaches in taxonomic studies;
2. Taxonomic groups profoundly studied so far and their percent from the whole biodiversity in
the respective country;
3. Taxonomic groups that are poorly studied or there is no information about them at all;
4. Taxonomic groups from the respective country of particular conservation value at local,
regional and global level, for which the lack of taxonomic information can cause their
5. How is the taxonomic research financed and what is the ratio EU:national funding.
The information from the discussion is summarized in Annex 1.
The following main conclusions can be made that refer both to the EU and ACC countries.
1. Taxonomy originated in and has long traditions in Europe. European scientists have studied
the diversity of plants, animals, fungi, microorganisms on land and in sea in their own
countries, have performed joint studies with colleagues from the neighboring countries and
have explored even different continents. Priorities in taxonomy vary according to the history
of the country and the specificities of its nature. Some of these priorities, however, are
diminishing and sometimes even coming to an end because of the cutback in number of
research positions for taxonomy. At present there are national research groups that
efficiently combine molecular and traditional taxonomic tools, e.g. in vertebrates (mammals,
birds, fishes), a restricted number of insect and non-arthropod invertebrate taxa, fungi,
vascular plants, and various groups of protists. The strength of these groups in an
international context lies in the fact that most of them still comprise traditional taxonomists
as well as more molecular-oriented systematists, thus ensuring the quality of samples used
for molecular analysis as well as ensuring that new insights obtained from molecular
analyses are transferred into improved classifications and species circumscriptions. The
broad competence of these research groups also makes it possible to obtain new insights
into basic questions on evolutionary processes leading to diversification, e.g. on speciation
mechanisms and the genetic basis of morphological evolution.
2. Despite this long history of taxonomy there are still large groups of organisms that are
untouched and there are no even specialists in them even in Europe as a whole. Among
them are such as several groups of Arthropoda and non-arthropod invertebrates (e.g.,
“lower Phyla”), many large groups of fungi (inconspicuous homo- and
heterobasidiomycetes; nonpathogenic or weakly pathogenic plant surface, endophytic,
litter-decaying and aquatic or marine ascomycetes (arguably the largest poorly studied
group); nonsporulating or very slowly growing hyphomycetes; hyphomycetous and
ascomycetous cryptic species (morphologically mimicking related or unrelated species),
etc. Vascular plants in Europe have been more or less well studied with the exception of
some taxonomically complicated groups like Taraxacum, Hieracium, some groups from
Rosaceae, etc. The same refers for a number of animal groups in which cryptic diversity is
expected (e.g. Rotifera), for marine microplankton and microbenthos. Unicellular
microorganisms are another understudied field, although some special efforts are being
directed towards taxonomy of micro-organism (e.g., the Belgian Coordinated Collection of
Micro-organisms – BCCM.
3. New and innovative developments in taxonomy have been recognised. These are of two
kinds: fast methodological developments with respect to molecular methods and
databasing and new approaches towards elucidating and understanding the phylogenetic
relationships (also as an essential input n weighting the biodiversity values).
4. The importance of taxonomic infrastructure (biological collections, databases) is recognized
both at national and international scale. There are number of initiatives running in Europe to
facilitate access to the largest herbaria and data sources. However many of these
institutions rely mostly on national funding or donations from the private sector. In these
institutions the taxonomic research is in crisis: scientific and technical staff positions are cut
or allocated to other scientific disciplines and funds for basic research are limited. In many
cases administrative tasks and maintenance of the collections are so time consuming that
hardly any time is available for field work or to adopt and develop new scientific methods. In
ACC in most cases the biological collections are state property and rely mostly on very
limited state funding. In addition they suffer from old infrastructure, small number of
researchers, old equipment. In the same time very often these collections comprise
valuable samples of the local biodiversity (often in regions of very rich biodiversity, e.g. the
collections in the Balkan countries) and type specimens of the local/regional flora and
fauna. It is a threat for science and understanding and protecting biodiversity if the funding
of the collection facilities continue to decrease. It should be noted that initiatives like
BioCase and CETAF facilitate the access to the biological collections and can largely
contribute to the better identification and up-to-date taxonomic revisions. It should be noted
that these European and EU-funded initiatives are important signals, as they are promoting
and increasing national interest and funding for the collection facilities and taxonomic
5. In general, the prevalence of national funding over the EU-funding for taxonomic research
and maintenance of biological collections is obvious both in EU and ACC countries.
Why to support taxonomy?
1. Taxonomy and systematics are the backbone for biodiversity research, conservation
and sustainable use as they define and provide the overview of the units of
biodiversity - the species.
Taxonomy as a science describes and records global biodiversity, and unravels the
relationships between elements of biodiversity. As such, it is the basic framework for
any approach to biodiversity research and conservation. Without basic taxonomic
knowledge, society would simply not have the necessary information to be aware of, let
alone conserve biodiversity. The task set to taxonomists is formidable: estimates on the
total number of species on Earth range between 5 million and 100 million, of these little
more than 1.5 million have been formally described and named so far; the geographic
and ecological coverage of this taxonomic knowledge is very uneven globally.
Taxonomic science produces the identification tools and insights on evolutionary
relationships required by researchers in other disciplines to study organisms. This not
only holds for biodiversity science, but for any field studying, or using, biological
Taxonomy offers researchers in any field of biological science the tools to
communicate about organisms. These tools consist of the standardised rules and
procedures that ensure internal consistency in scientific naming of organisms, and can
be applied with confidence to any group of organisms wherever it is found on earth
(International Codes of Bacteriological, Botanical, Zoological Nomenclature,
nomenclatural codes for viruses, cultivated plants,).
Taxonomy requires a long-term commitment by researchers and decision
makers. When compared to other disciplines, a relatively long and intense training is
needed to become a knowledgeable expert in the taxonomy of any group. Similarly, the
establishment of a useful and valuable taxonomic infrastructure is mostly a process,
which takes many years. These factors make that the discontinuation of taxonomic
traditions, as witnessed today, results in hard to revert losses of knowledge. Identifying
expert traditions in taxonomy, and providing the resources to maintain these should
therefore be absolute priorities in a policy developing taxonomy at any level.
The results of taxonomic research are published in internationally accepted journals
through established procedures and subsequently, the results are compiled in
publications (including electronic media) such as handbooks, catalogues and floras,
usually on a regional or national basis. Thus the taxonomic data are easily accessible
and can be organized in electronic databases.
2. Taxonomy is a research field, which is at the cross-roads between science and
society. There are strong traditions in some countries (UK, Germany, the Netherlands) for
amateurs in taxonomy of certain popular groups, e.g. Hieracium, orchids, butterflies, etc.
Although it should be realized that strong support by professional taxonomists is needed to
motivate amateurs, and to support the scientific value of their work, there is a clear link
between traditions in taxonomy and strong public awareness and support for protection and
sustainable use of biodiversity at local and regional scale.
3. Taxonomy in the ACC countries needs specific support. Very often these countries
have rich biodiversity, but face severe financial constraints to study and preserve this
resource. In addition, many ACC countries maintain world-class, important biological
collections, which face the risk of being lost because of insufficient government funding :
The economy of many ACC countries is still in transition. Most of the taxonomic
research is focused in the universities and academy of sciences which are mainly state
institutions with very low budget. The same refers to the major biological collections.
They all rely on the restricted state budgets. This often results in relatively very low
salaries for researchers, even to local standards; old equipment, lack of incentives for
young scientists to choose the academic career and enter the field of taxonomy. These
problems have been recognized, to different degrees, by the contributors from the ACC
Underdeveloped research infrastructure for taxonomy and systematics in the ACC
countries can present obstacles to these countries for their adequate participation in
the future ERA.
The possibilities for access to the biological collections and molecular Labs are very
much acknowledged and used. However, there is a real need for local development -
cooperative projects involving advanced training of taxonomists from the ACC
countries and development of their research infrastructure. Otherwise, there are two
options - either scientists from the ACC countries move to another European country
where they can work at modern level, or they forget all they have learned during their
specialisation abroad. In this second case considerable amount of European money
spent for the fellowships of these taxonomists are spent in vain.
The importance of taxonomy for the investigation, protection, and sustainable use of
biodiversity has been recognized on the international, and European level:
1. Governments, through the Convention on Biological Diversity, have acknowledged
the existence of a "taxonomic impediment" to the sound management of biodiversity
and a Global Taxonomic Initiative (GTI) has been established to deal with the
knowledge gaps in the taxonomic system (including those associated with genetic
systems), the shortage of trained taxonomists and curators, and the impact these
deficiencies have on our ability to conserve, use and share the benefits of our
biological diversity. The following steps are envisaged:
Operational objective 1: Assess taxonomic needs and capacities at national, regional
and global levels for the implementation of the Convention.
Operational objective 2: Provide focus to help build and maintain the human
resources, systems and infrastructure needed to obtain, collate and curate the
biological specimens that are the basis for taxonomic knowledge.
Operational objective 3: Facilitate an improved and effective infrastructure/system for
access to taxonomic information; with priority on ensuring that countries of origin gain
access to information concerning elements of their biodiversity.
Operational objective 4: Within the major thematic work programmes of the
Convention include key taxonomic objectives to generate information needed for
decision-making in conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity and its
Operational objective 5: Within the work on cross-cutting issues of the Convention,
include key taxonomic objectives to generate information needed for decision-making
in conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity and its components.
2. EU Biodiversity Strategy
Theme 3: apply modern taxonomy to build scientific tools for policy on conservation
and sustainable use, aiming inter alia, to fulfil gaps in taxonomy knowledge
3. European Commission: Communication from the Commission: The European Research
Area: providing new momentum. Strengthening-reorienting-opening up new perspectives.
In this document several possibilities for fostering taxonomic research can be found,
especially in the activities for:
mapping of excellence
increasing mobility of researchers
development of research infrastructure
networking of national research programs
boosting private investment in research
establishment of trans-European electronic network for research
regional structuring of ERA
4. Taxonomic research impacts directly on the following priority issues in European
research for the 21st Century:
inventory: knowledge on taxonomy and systematics of many groups must be
improved with the primary goal to identify and list the European species that are under
threat of global extinction
genetic variation: work on the genetics of populations and species for conservation
and to understand ecosystem structure, function and resilience
the CBD ecosystem approach requires substantial research to make it effective as a
policy and management tool and to clarify how biological diversity affects the
ecosystem approach and vice versa.
classification of habitats and ecosystems: research is needed to extend, refine and
exploit the existing classifications, preferably based on taxonomically sound clusters of
species composition and distribution in the habitats and to adapt them better to the
practical needs of users
soils: research is needed to understand how soil biodiversity responds to stress, the
role of soil biodiversity in ecosystem function, resilience and recovery
What should be done:
1. Biodiversity research projects should, wherever possible and reasonable, include
workpackages on taxonomy and systematics, as part of the Community contribution to the
Global Taxonomy Initiative
2. Work to develop taxonomy or systematics should be carried out in conjunction with projects
that touch on other biodiversity issues
3. Special efforts are needed to support research on the inventory and taxonomy of poorly
known groups of organisms (incl. micro-organisms) in Europe and to understand their often
crucial role in ecosystem functioning. . Application of molecular tools combined with the
classical taxonomic approaches (morphological studies, embryology, karyology,
chemotaxonomy) in the study of taxonomically complicated groups should be promoted.
4. Phylogenetic research is required to ensure the application of the phylogenetic signal in the
development of general biodiversity indicators, analyzing the potential invasive species,
pollinator-plant interactions, conservation policies, etc.
5. Networking of taxonomic data (e.g. Euro+Med Plant Base, Fauna Europaea, Species 2000)
should be fostered and clear terms of access and use of the results of these projects
should be formulated.
6. Open up existing actions (e.g., Marie Curie Action) to proposals dealing with taxonomic
7. The access to the biological collections should be provided and improved. Their
maintenance, enrichment and even rehabilitation should also be supported. Actions should
be promoted that will bring the biological collections in the ACC countries in conformity with
the modern standards and will ensure access to them.
8. High priority should be given to the identification of the components (species) of the
European biodiversity, the uncovering of their genetic potential and to the identification of
the species under threat of global extinction or whose populations rapidly decline.
9. The ACC countries
Taxonomy is one of the scientific fields in which establishment of regional networks of
research institutions/infrastructures can be supported. The regional approach is
important in taxonomy also for raising public awareness in the different countries - well
trained taxonomist can contribute to a better understanding of the local biodiversity and
its protection and sustainable use.
National biodiversity platforms can be the medium for such joint initiatives that can be
financed through the FP. Through the national biodiversity platforms, contacts and
networks for future cooperation can be established.