Emerging technologies could help preserve biodiversity

By Mansi Gandhi
Friday, 27 April, 2018

Emerging technologies could help preserve biodiversity

The Australian Academy of Science has warned that if Australia doesn’t change its approach to documenting our biodiversity, it is likely to take about 400 years to document every plant, animal and other species. In that time, many will go extinct.

The academy, in association with the Royal Society Te Apārangi, has prepared a 10-year plan for taxonomy and biosystematics, titled Discovering Biodiversity: A decadal plan for taxonomy and biosystematics in Australia and New Zealand 2018–2027.

The report has a foreword from Sir David Attenborough, who is endorsing calls for greater support for the scientists who study and name Australia’s plants, animals and other organisms. He said that at the very time that many species are under greatest threat, funding and other resources allocated to discovering and documenting species are declining.

Taxonomy and biosystematics — the disciplines of biology that discover, document, name and classify species — provide the framework for this much-needed sound understanding of life on our planet. Taxonomists literally name the living world.

The academy’s plan was developed by an expert working group led by Australian plant taxonomist Dr Kevin Thiele. He said Australia discovers and names around 2500 new species per year — more than almost any other country in the world.

Technological revolution

The Australian and New Zealand taxonomy and biosystematics communities have a solid foundation and, with appropriate investment and support, can take up opportunities and meet challenges, according to the report.

“Opportunities arise mostly from new and developing technologies, and challenges from the magnitude of the task and the social environment in which we operate,” Dr Thiele said.

“A substantial increase in the current rate is possible if taxonomists and biosystematists are properly supported to take advantage of the technological revolution underway in areas such as genomics, machine learning and 3D imaging, which would help speed up the mapping of our unique biodiversity.”

As well as opportunities, significant cultural, social, scientific and technological challenges will need to be addressed if we are to enjoy current and future benefits from our region’s diverse biodiversity.

Genomic sequencing

Genome sequencing is playing an increasingly important role in discovering and delimiting species and other taxa, identifying specimens, and building the phylogenies (evolutionary trees) on which modern classification systems are built, according to the report.

“Steady, and sometimes dramatic, improvements in these methods are leading to a dramatically increasing amount of information available for taxonomic and biosystematic studies,” said the report.

“Given the pace of technological change, these methods and their supporting data will improve dramatically in the next decade. The taxonomy and biosystematics community will play a key role in ensuring that the full potential of these technologies can be realised and exploited.”

“With careful planning and adequate capacity building, Australia could embark on a ‘hypertaxonomy’ program — we could completely document our biodiversity in a generation. This would put us at the global leading edge — and as the only developed nation in the world that is also biologically megadiverse, this is where we should be,” said Dr Thiele. 

3D imaging 

Imaging has always played an important role in taxonomy and biosystematics. The Global Plants project, which provides online access to critical type specimens from major herbaria throughout the world, has made Australian and New Zealand taxonomic botany substantially more efficient, faster and more effective, according to the report. 

“3D imaging has also revolutionised studies of animal specimens and fossils. X-ray computer tomography (CT) scanning and synchrotron beam imaging allow specimens to be imaged in exquisite detail without damaging them, even, in the case of fossils, while still encased in rock,” the report said.

“This opens new avenues for comparison and sophisticated statistical analysis, which in turn is leading to the discovery of new species and enhanced understanding of existing species.”


Along with the genomics revolution, the next decade will see rapid advances in computing — particularly in big data, artificial intelligence and machine learning — and these will provide new opportunities for taxonomy and biosystematics, said the report.

“Big data is core business for taxonomic and biosystematics research, and will grow substantially over the next decade. Digitisation of specimens and specimen records, and genomic data made available through, and analysed for, taxonomic and biosystematic studies, comprise a massive global data resource.

“The complexity of taxonomic patterns, and the requirement to analyse very large datasets to elucidate these patterns, lends itself to machine- and deep-learning approaches. These approaches need to be embraced in the next decade.”

Importantly, rigorous quality control is needed for these data and these innovations to reach their potential, the report said. 

Connected world

“With the global reach of the internet, opportunities for collaboration in taxonomy and biosystematics are growing rapidly. Large-scale international collaborations are building big-science taxonomy and biosystematics collaborations on a scale previously unachievable,” said the report.

“Australia and New Zealand need to be part of these collaborations, as economically wealthy nations that hold globally significant biodiversity, including lineages of organisms that are key to understanding evolution, and as partners that stand to benefit from early adoption of new international technologies.”

Understanding the evolution of life 

“Documenting our biodiversity is important — for conservation, biosecurity, agriculture, human and animal health, and to understand the evolution of life on Earth,” Dr Theil said. 

Academy President Professor Andrew Holmes acknowledged that the plan was ambitious in scope. “Australia and New Zealand are currently world leaders in managing and deploying biodiversity knowledge. This plan seeks to ensure that this leadership is not lost,” Professor Holmes said.

“With the appropriate investment and support from government, industry and society, we can ensure that future generations, and the community at large, are able to enjoy and celebrate the unique value and immense potential of the plant and animal life in our country.”

Image courtesy of Australian Academy of Science.

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