Image: Wikimedia Commons.
As an ‘old-fashioned’ botanist my heart was gladdened to see that Number 1 in the ‘Top 10 most viewed Plant Science research articles in 2013’ from Frontiers in Plant Science was one that dealt with fundamental botany of the taxonomic kind. The paper in question was entitled ‘Angiosperm-like pollen and Afropollis from the Middle Triassic (Anisian) of the Germanic Basin (Northern Switzerland)’ and was written by Peter Hochuli and Susanne Feist-Burkhardt. Whilst that recognition may engender a feel-good view that plant taxonomy is doing rather well, Quentin Wheeler’s timely New Phytologist Commentary, ‘Are reports of the death of taxonomy an exaggeration?’, offers a more cautious interpretation. Commenting upon an article by Daniel Bebber et al., he concludes that plant taxonomy (though one suspects taxonomy of all biota fares as badly) is still in desperate need of greater attention – in terms of people to undertake the work and appropriate funding – as befits its importance to a true appreciation of the planet’s biodiversity and the inter-relationships between living things. Sadly, this state of affairs is unlikely to be helped by news that the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew (London, UK) – one of the world’s premier centres of plant taxonomic endeavour – is in the midst of a funding crisis. Indeed, the situation is apparently so bad that ‘about 125 jobs could be cut as… Kew… faces a £5m shortfall in revenue in the coming financial year’. This must be particularly concerning since it comes shortly after news that visitor numbers to Kew increased by 29% last year compared to 2012. And this bad news on the plant taxonomy front is echoed in the USA where ‘too few scientists are being trained in agriculture areas of science’. So, there’s an insufficiency of people to grow the new crops that aren’t being identified because of the dearth of plant taxonomists. Where will it all end..?
[If you’re not put off by the precarious state of life as a taxonomist and want a little bit more of a career insight, then you could do much worse that read Elisabeth Pain’s ‘Science Careers’ article. And for a welcome boost to publicising the plight of the endangered species known as Taxonomus non-vulgaris var. biologicus, see Tim Entwisle’s news article in The Guardian – Ed.]
Taxonomic education and botany are increasingly neglected in schools and universities, leading to a ‘missed generation’ of adults that cannot identify organisms, especially plants.
The ‘taxonomic illiteracy’ of Western cultures has been recognised but limited research exists on the most effective methods for teaching species identification, especially in adults. A recent House of Lords inquiry described the state of taxonomy and systematics in the UK as ‘unsatisfactory’ and a shortage of trained taxonomists, especially for less charismatic taxa, has resulted in a ‘taxonomic impediment’ to effectively monitoring and managing biodiversity. Taxonomy is one of the science areas where ‘citizen scientists’ can most meaningfully participate but there is a need for more training in identification skills and novel training methods to raise both interest and awareness.
Botany has long been a neglected aspect of biological education in curricula, textbooks and courses from school to university level. The cycle is self-perpetuating, with biology teachers neglecting botany because of its absence in their own education. In a study of A-level biology students for example, 86% could recognise only three or fewer native plant species – which is not surprising, as their teachers’ botanical identification skills were also poor. Botanical education is an integral component of ecology, and the rapid loss of plant life and its implications for mankind deserves a more prominent role in education.
In the School of Biological Sciences at Leicester we have been aware of these problems for some time and working to mitigate them. The University Botanic Garden offers the public an opportunity to study for an Advanced Certificate in Plant Identification, and students on our Biological Sciences degrees can also take a similar Plant Identification Skills module for academic credit.
A new paper in the Journal of Biological Education makes a strong case for the importance of such public and academic courses, and the contribution that ‘Citizen Scientists’ can make in this area, which does not require any expensive equipment, only knowledge and enthusiasm (Bethan Stagg & Maria Donkin (2013) Teaching botanical identification to adults: experiences of the UK participatory science project ‘Open Air Laboratories’, Journal of Biological Education, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00219266.2013.764341).
Teaching people about plants does not rival the glamour aspects of medical research, but is possibly no less important in terms of the contribution that academic education can make to society.
Image: Yne Van De Mergel/Wikimedia Commons.
Yes, I know that ‘everyone and their dog’ has probably written something about this item, but sometimes you’ve just got to go with the flow. So, here’s my take on the story that straddles the ‘in your face, excesses and self-promoting world of pop and instant celebrity’ and the usually ‘more genteel, non-sensationalist, staid, safe world of plant taxonomy’, and in an attempt to encourage the new generation of botanists, and by way of ‘getting down wiv da kids’, I offer this atypically topical terpsichorean pteridophytic contribution. So, let’s cut to the chase, a new genus of ferns has been ‘created’ (not in that sense!) and is called Gaga. Yes, it is named in honour of Lady Gaga, an American singer and songwriter of some ‘renown’, I believe. The new genus was established after ferns previously included in the genus Cheilanthes were re-examined by the Duke University (USA) team of Fay-Wei Li et al. with new molecular tools. Those tools include DNA sequence data from the plastid gene matK. ‘MatK, perhaps the most powerful chloroplast marker in angiosperms, has been massively exploited for various levels of phylogenetic studies, and even been proposed as the prime DNA barcode of plants’ (Kuo et al., 2008). But, although widely used in dissecting the angiosperm branch(es) of the tree of life, matK has only recently been developed for use with so-styled ‘lower’ plants, such as ferns (Kuo et al.). The matK gene sequence of Gaga features a prominent ‘GAGA’ synapomorphy (‘a trait that is shared by two or more taxa and their most recent common ancestor, whose own ancestor in turn does not possess the trait’), which separates it from other genera in the group. The new genus is named in honour of Lady Gaga ‘for her articulate and fervent defense of equality and individual expression in today’s society’. The resultant reassignment of existing species to the new genus accounts for 17 of the 19 new Gaga species; the other two are newly-described ones: G. germanotta, named in honour of Lady Gaga’s parents, Cynthia and Joe Germanotta, and G. monstraparva, which honours Lady Gaga’s loyal fans, her ‘little monsters’. Furthermore, the official little monster greeting is apparently the outstretched ‘monster claw’ hand, which bears a striking resemblance to a tightly inrolled young fern leaf prior to unfurling. And, in this post-Melbourne Code new age, the new species are described in English – not fuddy-duddy, archaic Latin! How cool is that? And, if you think all ferns are alike (as for grasses…?), and a difficult group to ‘get into’, then look at Li et al.’s Fig. 4, which shows remarkable differences between several Gaga species. Could this combination of topicality and comparative ease of identification be the plant group to entice youngsters (whether they be little monsters or otherwise) to the joys of (plant) taxonomy (for such new blood is desperately needed if we are to get to grips with global biological diversity – e.g. Peter Rüegg, Winston Tarere, James Morgan)? Maybe, but I’m still not sure how to interpret the expression on the face of ‘Graduate Student Fay-Wei Li at the moment he discovered Gaga germanotta alive in Costa Rica’. Anyway, should your interest in other scientific names based on people have now been piqued, I can thoroughly recommend Mark Isaak’s entertaining site at http://www.curioustaxonomy.net/etym/people.html. Who said taxonomists are a boring lot?