Race to identify Australia’s unknown species before they’re gone

Australian Hymenoptera (wasps) - thousands of species remain unknown
27 November 2023

As Australia’s taxonomists gather in Canberra to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the body established to document Australia’s plants, animals and fungi, one issue is top of mind: their ambitious goal to name all undescribed species in Australia within a generation may remain out of reach without more government and philanthropic support.

Professor Andy Austin, Director of Taxonomy Australia at the Australian Academy of Science, is one of the co-convenors of the national conference Biosystematics 2023. He said about 70% of Australia’s rich biodiversity has not yet been documented and is unnamed.

“This is despite an acknowledgement by the government of the economic returns that spending on taxonomy and naming species can bring, and our declining biodiversity being among the top concerns for Australians right now,” Professor Austin said.

“Undocumented species are mostly invertebrates and fungi—small organisms hidden away in forests, leaflitter, in rivers and below the seashore—but serving critical functions in providing ‘ecosystem services’ such as maintaining soil fertility, keeping pests in check, and providing food for larger species.

“With ecosystems worldwide at risk of breaking down within our lifetimes due to the impacts of climate change and habitat loss, we must do all we can to understand and protect Australia’s biodiversity.”

Professor Austin said while cost of living is the dominant issue for Australians currently, protecting Australia’s biodiversity is also a top concern.

Australians surveyed regarding their views about the impacts of climate change said their highest level of concern is for Australian plants and animals and impacts on biodiversity.”

Earlier this year, Minister for the Environment and Water the Hon Tanya Plibersek MP acknowledged how the Australian economy benefits by between $4 and $35 for every dollar spent on taxonomy and naming species, citing a cost-benefit analysis by Taxonomy Australia and Deloitte Access Economics.

However, the latest State of the Environment Report found the annual federal government budget of just over $2 million for the taxonomy research community has remained unchanged for more than a decade.

The conference will hear from international keynote speaker Dr Olwen Grace, Deputy Director of Science at the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh. Until recently, Dr Grace led the Accelerated Taxonomy program at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew.

The program is drawing on new tools and technologies, including phylogenomics (comparing genetic information) and machine learning to accelerate the characterisation and identification of new species.

The Academy’s Decadal Plan for Taxonomy and Biosystematics outlines the steps required to document Australia’s biota within a generation, including a reinvigorated training program of young taxonomic scientists and the application of new technologies in molecular biology, imaging and computer-based learning for describing species.

Biosystematics 2023 is a joint conference of the Australian Biological Resources Study (ABRS), Society of Australian Systematic Biologists (SASB), Australasian Mycological Society (AMS) and Australasian Systematic Botany Society (ASBS). The conference celebrates the 50th anniversary of the ABRS, first set up by the Whitlam Government, and the 50th anniversary of the ASBS. Find out more about Taxonomy Australia.