Experts in insect taxonomy “threatened by extinction” reveals the first European Red List of Taxonomists

While insect populations continue to decline, taxonomic expertise in Europe is at serious risk, confirms data obtained within the European Red List of Insect Taxonomists, a recent study commissioned by the European Union. 

Expertise tends to be particularly poor in the countries with the richest biodiversity, while taxonomists are predominantly male and ageing

While insect populations continue to decline, taxonomic expertise in Europe is at serious risk, confirms data obtained within the European Red List of Insect Taxonomists, a recent study commissioned by the European Union. 

Scientists who specialise in the identification and discovery of insect species – also known as insect taxonomists – are declining across Europe, highlights the newly released report by CETAF, International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and Pensoft. The authors of this report represent different perspectives within biodiversity science, including natural history and research institutions, nature conservation, academia and scientific publishing.

Despite the global significance of its taxonomic collections, Europe has been losing taxonomic expertise at such a rate that, at the moment nearly half (41.4%) of the insect orders are not covered by a sufficient number of scientists. If only EU countries are counted, the number looks only slightly more positive (34.5%). Even the four largest insect orders: beetles (Coleoptera), moths and butterflies (Lepidoptera), flies (Diptera) and wasps, bees, ants and sawflies (Hymenoptera) are only adequately ‘covered’ in a fraction of the countries.

To obtain details about the number, location and productivity of insect taxonomists, the team extracted information from thousands of peer-reviewed research articles published in the last decade, queried the most important scientific databases and reached out to over fifty natural science institutions and their networks. Furthermore, a dedicated campaign reached out to individual researchers through multiple communication channels. As a result, more than 1,500 taxonomists responded by filling in a self-declaration survey to provide information about their personal and academic profile, qualification and activities. 

Then, the collected information was assessed against numerical criteria to classify the scientists into categories similar to those used by the IUCN Red List of Threatened SpeciesTM. In the European List of Insect Taxonomists, these range from Eroded Capacity (equivalent to Extinct) to Adequate Capacity (equivalent to Least Concern). The assessment was applied to the 29 insect orders (i.e. beetles, moths and butterflies etc.) to figure out which insect groups the society, conservation practitioners and decision-makers need not be concerned at this point.

Overview of the taxonomic capacity in European countries based upon the Red List Index (colour gradient goes from red (Eroded Capacity) to green (Adequate Capacity).
Image by the European Red List of Taxonomists consortium.

On a country level, the results showed that Czechia, Germany and Russia demonstrate the most adequate coverage of insect groups. Meanwhile, Albania, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Luxembourg, Latvia, Ireland and Malta turned out to be the ones with insufficient number of taxonomists.

In most cases, the availability of experts seems to correlate to GDP, as wealthiest countries tend to invest more in their scientific institutions.

What is particularly worrying is that the lack of taxonomic expertise is more evident in the countries with the greatest species diversity. This trend may cause even more significant problems in the knowledge and conservation of these species, further aggravating the situation. Thus, the report provides further evidence about a global pattern where the countries richest in biodiversity are also the ones poorest in financial and human resources. 

The research team also reminds that it is European natural history museums that host the largest scientific collections – including insects – brought from all over the globe. As such, Europe is responsible to the world for maintaining taxonomic knowledge and building adequate expert capacity.

Other concerning trends revealed in the new report are that the community of taxonomists is also ageing and – especially in the older groups – male-dominated (82%). 

One reason to have fewer young taxonomists could be due to limited opportunities for professional training (…), and the fact that not all professional taxonomists provide it, as a significant number of taxonomists are employed by museums and their opportunities for interaction with university students is probably not optimal. Gender bias is very likely caused by multiple factors, including fewer opportunities for women to be exposed to taxonomic research and gain an interest, unequal offer of career opportunities and hiring decisions. A fair-playing field for all genders will be crucial to address these shortcomings and close the gap.

comments Ana CasinoCETAF’s Executive Director.

***

Entomologist examining a small insect under a microscope.
Photo by anton_shoshin/stockadobe.com.
The European Red List of Taxonomists concludes with practical recommendations concerning strategic, science and societal priorities, addressed to specific decision-makers.

The authors give practical examples and potential solutions in support of their call to action.

For instance, in order to develop targeted and sustainable funding mechanisms to support taxonomy, they propose the launch of regular targeted Horizon Europe calls to study important insect groups for which taxonomic capacity has been identified to be at a particularly high risk of erosion.

To address specific gaps in expertise – such as the ones reported in the publication from Romania – a country known for its rich insect diversity, yet poor in taxonomic expertise – the consortium proposes the establishment of a natural history museum or entomological research institute that is well-fitted to serve as a taxonomic facility.

Amongst the scientific recommendations, the authors propose measures to ensure better recognition of taxonomic work at a multidisciplinary level. The scientific community, including disciplines that use taxonomic research, such as molecular biology, medicine and agriculture – need to embrace universal standards and rigorous conduct for the correct citation of scientific publications by insect taxonomists.

Societal engagement is another important call. “It is pivotal to widely raise awareness of the value and impact of taxonomy and the work of taxonomists. We must motivate young generations to join the scientific community” points Prof. Lyubomir Penev, Managing Director of Pensoft.

***

Understanding taxonomy is a key to understanding the extinction risk of speciesIf we strategically target the gaps in expert capacity that this European Red List identifies, we can better protect biodiversity and support the well-being and livelihoods of our societies. With the climate crisis at hand, there is no time left to waste,

added David Allen from the IUCN Red List team.

As a dedicated supporter of the IUCN Red List, I am inspired by this call to strengthen the capacity, guided by evidence and proven scientific methods. However, Europe has much more scientific capacity than most biodiversity-rich regions of the world. So, what this report particularly highlights is the need for massively increasing investment in scientific discovery, and building taxonomic expertise, around the world,”  

said Jon Paul Rodríguez, Chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission.

***

Follow and join the conversation on Twitter using the #RedListTaxonomists hashtag. 

Nature Conservation Special: Guidelines for the monitoring of beetles protected in Europe

In a follow-up to a recent special issue, 8 research articles outline a set of verified guidelines for the monitoring of 5 saproxylic beetle species listed in the Habitats Directive

In a set of eight research publications, scientists tested various methods for the monitoring of five European saproxylic (i.e. dependent on dead wood) beetle species protected by the Habitats Directive. The aim of their work was to test and propose a standard method for each species. A key role in this conservation initiative was played by citizen scientists who made it possible for sufficient data to be collected within a significantly shorter time frame.

The special issue “Guidelines for the monitoring of the saproxylic beetles protected in Europe” is the second in succession published in the open access journal Nature Conservation. Both are produced within the framework of the European Union’s LIFE Programme Project “Monitoring of insects with public participation” (LIFE11 NAT/IT/000252 MIPP) and were presented at the European Workshop held in Mantova in May 2017. Colonel Franco Mason, project manager of the MIPP project, notes that the workshop was aimed primarily at monitoring of saproxylic beetles.

While the first article collection focused on reporting recent findings derived from monitoring surveys across the European Union, the papers in the latest issue are devoted to testing various methods for the monitoring of five selected species of protected beetles, in order to determine the most efficient methods and, subsequently, to propose them as standard methods.

12761_Public participation 2nd tweetCuriously, the public participation in the project was not limited to ecology and entomology semi-experts and aficionados. The team specifically targeted children when recruiting volunteers. One of the dissemination activities of the MIPP project was the “MIPP-iacciono gli insetti” (translated to “I like insects” from Italian), where 3000 students from primary to high school undertook 60 activities per year in order to learn how to locate and identify the target insects.

“Participation by children in environmental education programmes seems to have a great impact on their attitude and behaviour,” notes Giuseppe Carpaneto, Roma Tre University and his co-authors in their introductory article.

“Some studies have shown that children who participate in such programmes are more concerned about nature, want to learn more about environmental issues and are more prone to follow pro-environmental behaviour (e.g. waste recycling) than children who did not participate”.

In another article, included in the special issue, Fabio Mosconi of the Italian Agricultural Research Council and Sapienza University of Rome and his co-authors tested whether a specially trained Golden Retriever could locate the threatened hermit beetle faster and more efficiently than scientists using the standard “wood mould sampling” method.

###

Additional information:

About the Life project MIPP

The main objective of the project MIPP is to develop and test methods for the monitoring of five beetle species listed in Annexes II and IV of the Habitats Directive (Osmoderma eremitaLucanus cervusCerambyx cerdoRosalia alpinaMorimus funereus).

LifeWatchGreece launches a Special Paper Collection for Greek biodiversity research

Developed in the 1990s and early 2000s, LifeWatch is one of the large-scale European Research Infrastructures (ESFRI) created to support biodiversity science and its developments. Its ultimate goal is to model Earth’s biodiversity based on large-scale data, to build a vast network of partners, and to liaise with other high-quality and viable research infrastructures (RI).

Being one of the founding LifeWatch member states, Greece has not only implemented LifeWatchGreece, but it is all set and ready to “fulfill the vision of the Greek LifeWatch RI and establish it as the biodiversity Centre of Excellence for South-eastern Europe”, according to the authors of the latest Biodiversity Data Journal‘s Editorial: Dr Christos Arvanitidis, Dr Eva Chatzinikolaou, Dr Vasilis Gerovasileiou, Emmanouela Panteri, Dr Nicolas Bailly, all affiliated with the Hellenic Centre for Marine Research (HCMR) and part of the LifeWatchGreece Core Team, together with Nikos Minadakis, Foundation for Research and Technology Hellas (FORTH), Alex Hardisty, Cardiff University, and Dr Wouter Los, University of Amsterdam.

lwg-presentationMaking use of the technologically advanced open access Biodiversity Data Journal and its Collections feature, the LifeWatchGreece team is publishing a vast collection of peer-reviewed scientific outputs, including software descriptions, data papers, taxonomic checklists and research articles, along with the accompanying datasets and supporting material. Their intention is to demonstrate the availability and applicability of the developed e-Services and Virtual Laboratories (vLabs) to both the scientific community, as well as the broader domain of biodiversity management.

The LifeWatchGreece Special Collection is now available in Biodiversity Data Journal, with a series of articles highlighting key contributions to the large-scale European LifeWatch RI. The Software Description papers explain the LifeWatchGreece Portal, where all the e-Services and the vLabs provided by LifeWatchGreece RI are hosted; the Data Services based on semantic web technologies, which provide detailed and specialized search paths to facilitate data mining; the R vLab which can be used for a series of statistical analyses in ecology, based on an integrated and optimized online R environment; and the Micro-CT vLab, which allows the online exploration, dissemination and interactive manipulation of micro-tomography datasets.

The LifeWatchGreece Special Collection also includes a series of taxonomic checklists (preliminary, updated and/or annotated); a series of data papers presenting historical and original datasets; and a selection of research articles reporting on the outcomes, methodologies and citizen science initiatives developed by collaborating research projects, which have shared human, hardware and software resources with LifeWatchGreece RI.

LifeWatchGreece relies on a multidisciplinary approach, involving several subsidiary initiatives; collaborations with Greek, European and World scientific communities; specialised staff, responsible for continuous updates and developments; and, of course, innovative online tools and already established IT infrastructure.

###

Original source:

Arvanitidis C, Chatzinikolaou E, Gerovasileiou V, Panteri E, Bailly N, Minadakis N, Hardisty A, Los W (2016) LifeWatchGreece: Construction and operation of the National Research Infrastructure (ESFRI). Biodiversity Data Journal 4: e10791. https://doi.org/10.3897/BDJ.4.e10791

Additional information:

This work has been supported by the LifeWatchGreece infrastructure (MIS 384676), funded by the Greek Government under the General Secretariat of Research and Technology (GSRT), ESFRI Projects, National Strategic Reference Framework (NSRF).