Australia

What is a taxonomist and why are they crying out for more funding?

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They're the scientists who identify Australia’s species, but now they say they're the ones in danger of being wiped out.

Professor Frank Kohler is, to put it simply, a snail specialist.

Sitting over a microscope in his office at the Australian Museum, he explains to SBS News how he uses snail genitalia to tell different species apart.

Professor Kohler is one of a group of scientists called taxonomists, who are responsible for the discovery and naming of new species.

And it's an important job in Australia, with the country accounting for 10 per cent of all species in the world and just a third of its species discovered.

Professor Frank Kohler studies snail taxonomy.
Professor Frank Kohler studies snail taxonomy.
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He says identifying new species is integral to protecting Australia's biodiversity.

“It doesn’t stop at the koala,” he said. “It begins with the koala but it goes down to a dragonfly, and a snail and other obscure animals that people don’t know.”

Australia is considered to have what is called ‘mega-diversity’, with more than two million predicted species in the country.

We Australians are custodians of about 10 per cent of all species in the world.

- Professor Frank Kohler

But with only a third of them discovered, taxonomists say their jobs are more important now than ever.

“We Australians are custodians of probably about 10 per cent of all species in the world, and I don’t think that our current funding and staffing is reflecting this responsibility,” Professor Kohler said. 

Snail genitalia under the microscope.
Snail genitalia under the microscope.
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Cuts to science research have been felt across the sector over the past few years, including at the Australian Museum in Sydney, which is home to more than 21 million specimens. 

"I live in an institution that has had to deal with these cuts every day and we try very hard to meet the demands that we feel we have with shrinking resources," Professor Kohler said. 

And the number of taxonomists in Australia has steadily been decreasing since the 1970s, even as the country's population doubled. Annual federal funding of around $2 million has also remained unchanged.

The Australian Museum is home to over 21 million natural history specimens.
The Australian Museum is home to over 21 million natural history specimens.
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Cameron Slayter, manager of the Australian Museum’s Life Science said scientists from across the sector are crying out for more investment in their work.

“Funding would at least need to be doubled to even maintain the existing rate of research,” he said

One-quarter of those working as taxonomists are either unpaid or retired; working for passion rather than money.

Mr Slatyer says without more funding, attracting young scientists to the field is becoming increasingly difficult.

"In an area like taxonomy, it isn’t necessarily attractive to young scientists. I could name many early career students who’ve left science entirely because they’ve been unable to secure that funding.”

Claire Rowe is one young scientist taking the risk. The 24-year old pHD student is working on trying to identify a new jellyfish species that has washed up in Macquarie Lake.

“We don’t actually know what species of jellyfish it is, so it’s kind of like a mystery trying to figure out what we’re actually studying,” she said.

Budding taxonomist Claire Rowe inspecting her jellyfish collection.
Budding taxonomist Claire Rowe inspecting her jellyfish collection.
SBS News

Taxonomy is seen as the first line of defence against introduced diseases, pests and weeds – one of those being the jellyfish. Ms Rowe said this particular ‘upside down’ jellyfish has the potential to seriously harm local marine life, and people.

“If we don’t know what species they are, we don’t know where they come from, and we can’t figure out how they got there, so taxonomy is vital for figuring that out.”

She says taxonomy is her way of changing the world.

“It’s vital to know what species we’re studying, and it’s also with climate change and species disappearing, we need to know what we’re actually losing and what’s out there."

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