Taxonomists describe, define and identify life on Earth. This fundamental work is necessary to preserve and protect declining biodiversity. However, taxonomists are becoming an endangered species themselves, as demonstrated by two veterans at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Science.
The eastern gorilla, the addax antelope, the sea urchin, the Panamian golden frog, the black-winged starling or the Hawaiian palm. If no one had ever scientifically described these animals and plants, we would have had such trouble protecting them today now that they are critically endangered. ‘You do have to know what exactly you are protecting,’ explains taxonomist Patrick Grootaert. Together with his colleague, Léon Baert, he has said his goodbyes to the Entomology Department after a richly filled career studying insects at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS).
A whopping 1,9 million animal species have been assigned with such a scientific ‘identi-kit’. But even this is only a small fraction since there are still millions – with estimates from 8,7 million to even 50 million – of animals creeping, flying or swimming around anonymously. ‘I think that we only know about 10 to 20 percent of all fauna,’ says Grootaert, ‘and many go extinct before we can even describe them.’
The most recent update of the IUCN Red List certainly is very straightforward about the extinction rate: 24.307 species are threatened with extinction out of a total of 85.604 that were investigated. Scientists have been avowedly speaking of a genuine biodiversity crisis and a sixth mass extinction. The last one even obliterated all non-flying dinosaurs around 65 million years ago.
Loss of habitat, overexploitation, pollution, climate change, introduced species, etc. These not only affect ‘poster animals’ which are known from WWF campaigns. The Red List also includes 394 species of insects that are extinct. According to estimates, many more are disappearing, up to a hundred every day. But which species are being lost and what are the consequences for local ecosystems – think of pollination without the help of bees? ‘We have no idea, and this is alarming’, as entomologist Axel Hochkirch writes in Nature. He advocates for more investments in taxonomy.
Taxonomists are very much down to earth, often with boots or hiking shoes on. Grootaert – who is occasionally called the Lord of the Flies by his co-workers – has been exploring Singaporean mangroves to look for fly species, while Baert has mapped spider populations on the Galápagos Islands. Both have lost count but together they have described over 330 and 150 new species respectively. Grootaert: ‘Finding a new species can give you an indescribable feeling, and this is what drives taxonomists to spend a whole career on. However, taxonomy is about more than collecting stamps. We acquire new insights into biodiversity by, for example, getting samples every week in a certain area using insect traps. This is how we can detect fluctuations in populations in the long term, get to know their habitat, and get to know how various organisms interact around each other. So basically we are not simply sitting in a corner of the room looking at little species with our huge spectacles on! A taxonomist needs to have the courage to put things in the right perspective, and show his work to the world.’
This line of work can become the fundamental starting point for research in speciation – the forming of a species – and processes of evolution. At the same time it should also lead to more effective conservation efforts. Measures are often improvident, Baert argues. ‘Increasing biodiversity in itself in certain areas cannot be a goal in its own right. You need to protect the special species – species that are typical for a certain area.’ He tells about a natural spring close to the Museum of Natural Sciences where daffodils and typical spider species are living around it. ‘It was removed to make room for a flower meadow. Biodiversity increased but the species there were very trivial. The typical or special species were gone.’
The Last of the Mohicans
The state of professional taxonomists is similar to the state of species, they are thinning out. There are barely twenty taxonomists in the whole of Belgium. Grootaert and Baert were the Last of the Mohicans in the Entomology Department of RBINS. Ten years ago there were still about a dozen left. It is no different when you go abroad. ‘Taxonomists are threatened with extinction’, Baert says. ‘Knowledge and skills are not being transferred to a new generation, and are thus lost.’ For many families of animals there are not even any specialists. This is how extinctions are occurring beyond our knowing. Grootaert agrees with this: ‘Fewer taxonomists are bad news for fauna itself.’
How come taxonomists and their life’s work are being undermined? Cutbacks, course changes within a scientific institute or being elbowed by ‘hipper’ scientists when research grants are distributed. The image of this old-school branch of science certainly does not always get the spotlight, and taxonomic research rarely makes it into the major scientific journals like Nature or Science. Unfortunately these are the issues that science is about nowadays.
DNA barcoding – identifying species based on their genetic profile – is a trending topic that gives the impression that it can render classic taxonomy, based on morphological (external) characteristics, unnecessary. ‘Not a chance’, says Grootaert fiercely. ‘Sometimes animals look identical from the outside, but they can differ at a genetic level, or vice versa! It is exactly this combination of genetic and morphological taxonomy that delivers the best science.’
Biology departments at universities or institutes, such as the Research Institute for Nature and Forest (INBO), do not have any taxonomists among their midst. That kind of expertise has to come from natural science institutes. ‘This will dissipate’, Grootaert fears. Baert, on the other hand, has seen some improvements in his field of arachnology: ‘The US was starting to dismantle the taxonomy infrastructure: from one day to another everything was about ecology but, in the meantime, they have come to realise that you need taxonomists for this as well.’
Increasingly, there are amateurs or citizen scientists who like to help out in fieldwork or to identify species. Volunteers have always existed. Charles Darwin, for instance, would have never come up with his theory of evolution through natural selection if he had not obtained the necessary evidence from hundreds of amateur naturalists across the globe. Baert always relied on a dozen of amateurs from the ARABEL arachnological society, which he established himself. ‘The society included biology students, but steel workers or miners joined us just as well. The latter were even among the best of them!’ Meanwhile Grootaert opens up a storage cabinet: ‘There you go! Much of my work on flies is based on the collections of two so-called amateurs from Ghent, Maurice Bequaert and Maurice Goetghebuer. Marvelous collection! Citizen scientists are doing an excellent job but it is not a sustainable solution. You still require professionals to coordinate the projects, to obtain new insights. Also, amateurs just do what they like to do – who can blame them, it’s their hobby! – while professional taxonomists don’t avoid the dull, technical work, such as sifting through the species’ genome to look for differences. Citizen scientists are necessary but they can never compensate for the acute shortage of taxonomists.’
Both distinguished employees of the Institute are officially retiring but do not want abandon their work in any circumstance. Grootaert is leaving to Singapore for half a year to continue his work in the mangroves, while Baert is already working as a volunteer: ‘The work is not finished. 'And once you have been bitten by the taxonomy bug, you remain bitten for the rest of your life. Retirement age doesn’t change anything about that.’
Who are they?
Patrick Grootaert started his career at Ghent University and ended up at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Science in 1980. ‘I became a taxonomist after I discovered fly species in my own backyard that had never been described before. I wanted to figure this out and I have henceforth discovered six fly species that occur quite generally in Belgium but were new to science. Even recently, I found a new species in Brussels, called Drapetis bruscellensis.’
The RBINS chatterbox cannot stop talking about taxonomy. ‘You discover new organisms, their shapes and what they are for, their behaviour – dancing flies! – and the enormous diversity of species!’ He is not able to pick out his favourite species. ‘Every species has its own themes. The Ngirhaphium species are real fun, a new genus that occurs exclusively in mangroves. Flies larger than five millimetres so they are quite big. First, I found three new species in Singapore, then two new species in Southern Thailand and now also in Borneo and Cambodia. In any case, I primarily would like to know which kind of niche these organisms live in throughout this enormous diversity that is nature.’
Grootaert is an adventurer. He particularly remembers his expeditions through the Sahara, the Borneo rainforest in a canoe, the mangroves of Southern Thailand, in the King Leopold III Base on Papua New Guinea’s Laing Island, and of course, the big Boyekoli Ebale expedition on the Congo River in 2010. ‘Congo was such a tremendous experience, along with hundred other scientists!’
Starting off as an ecologist at Ghent University, primarily faunistics, and moved in 1975 to the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences.
As suggested by his superior of the time, Jackie Van Goethem, hij went on studying the spider populations on the Galápagos Islands. ‘This produced a lot of unknown species that had to be described. This kind of experience forges you into a taxonomist.’ Taxonomy is important in every biological discipline, Baert argues, ‘There should be more taxonomists, and more expeditions to pristine natural areas.’ Which aspect of his work gives him the most satisfaction? ‘You can immortalise someone who you are eternally grateful to. In that way he named two spider species on the Galápagos after Jacques Brel and his wife respectively.