Marine biodiversity and the need for systematic inventories
Abstract:Despite universal recognition of coral reefs as the 'ocean's rainforest,' the focus of conservation is largely restricted to cnidarians, fish, larger sponges, and macroalgae. These span a wide taxonomic range and can be monitored non-invasively. But a biodiversity picture based on so few taxa is dismally incomplete. As in the rainforest, the overwhelming majority of species and clades on the reef are cryptic. Worms, mollusks, echinoderms, and crustaceans are numerically dominant, contribute to the trophic underpinning, and play pivotal ecological roles. Other than a few charismatic species (e.g., starfish, tube worms, conchs), they are underestimated and overassumed. Proper inventory of such taxa requires factors not routinely employed in conservation: physical sampling and systematic expertise. Yet scientifically robust results can be achieved with minimal damage and investment, and lead to recognition of key species, for which monitoring schemes can be developed. Examples of recent surveys by systematists are provided, involving echinoderms, mollusks, crustaceans, and worms from a variety of marine habitats, and each showing significant results. Despite this evidence of success, acquiring systematic expertise for inventorying marine invertebrates continues to be a limiting factor. After decades of de-emphasizing systematics, the cohort of trained systematists is aging and facing non-replacement, even in museums where extensive specimen collections, laboratories, and libraries provide the best available support for systematic work. In today's climate of biodiversity interest, new initiatives are attempting to reverse this trend. National Science Foundation's PEET [Partnerships for Enhancing Expertise in Taxonomy] Program is providing resources for training the next generation of taxonomists working on poorly known groups. At the international level, initiatives such as DIVERSITAS' Systematics Agenda 2000 International Program are supporting new agendas to document reef biodiversity and promote systematic inventory. The Convention on Biological Diversity is calling for more systematic inventories to facilitate their goals of conservation and sustainable development. Programmatic and financial support for inventories by national, regional, and local conservation and monitoring agencies are the next requirement.
Document Type: Research Article
Publication date: 2001-09-01
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