Taxonomy, the science of naming things, is under threat



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Museum collections are repositories of specimens and data, including specimens, tissue samples and vocal recordings.
from Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-ND

Nic Rawlence

Museums are cathedrals of science, but they are under threat worldwide as part of a malaise of undervaluing museum collections and the field of taxonomy, the science of naming biodiversity.

The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa is the latest example. Te Papa confirmed a restructure in July, following leaked reports. Facing sustained backlash and disquiet in the science community, the museum announced an international review of its collections and has since scaled back its restructure plans.

But jobs remain on the line even though the review panel found the museum didn’t have enough staff to look after all of its collections.




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From Joseph Banks to big data, herbaria bring centuries-old science into the digital age


Taxonomy a keystone of natural history

Taxonomy underpins everything from health to conservation, and biosecurity to the economy.

The international review shows Te Papa is doing a good job in most areas, but needs to improve on several aspects, including access to collections, cataloguing a backlog of specimens and digitisation.

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, in Wellington.
from Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-ND

These areas of concern were seriously exacerbated by the panel’s finding that Te Papa is understaffed.

The review panel was not asked to comment on the restructure. At that stage, the proposal was to cut 25 positions, 10 of which were in the collections team. This has now been scaled back to at least five jobs in the collections team.

Staff whose positions may be affected were told only a day before the review recommendations were made public.




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Museum collections more than sum of parts

Te Papa’s latest leaked restructure document remains a cause for concern. Curators are no longer in the firing line. However, the five natural history collections managers are gone, to be replaced by three assistant curators and two general technical positions. All of this would appear to fall at a lower pay scale.

I congratulate Te Papa on listening to internal and external feedback and increasing their curatorial expertise in neglected strengths, such as marine mammals and seaweeds. Ironically, in the case of marine mammals, this seems to rectify a mistake in making the previous marine mammal expert redundant in 2013.

A member of the international review panel, Tim White at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, told the public broadcaster RNZ:

Te Papa could use more professional collections staff. If they are going to promote the use of their collections … then they need
to think creatively about how they could get more staff.

Taking into account the recently published Decadal Plan for Taxonomy and Biosystematics and the 2015 Royal Society Te Apārangi report on National Taxonomic Collections in New Zealand, this is a good opportunity to increase collections staff rather than, at best, approximate the status quo.

It is my hope that the filling of positions in the proposed structure will not result in a loss of areas of taxonomic expertise. Many of Te Papa’s scientists are leaders in their fields, including in areas where Te Papa leads the way internationally. One should not boost the curatorial team at the expense of collections management.

The bigger picture

As an isolated archipelago with unique flora and fauna, New Zealand needs diverse taxonomic expertise to appropriately handle biosecurity and conservation crises. If Te Papa, or museums in general, shed their taxonomic expertise like an unwanted sloughed-off snake skin, it will be up to other institutions to pick up the slack. If not, our biodiversity will suffer.

The greyling is New Zealand’s only extinct freshwater fish.
from Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-ND

There has already been a 10% decline in the taxonomic workforce in Australia in the past 25 years, with declines of around 22% in New Zealand over a similar time period. In both countries, a steadily increasing proportion (currently around a quarter) of taxonomists are unpaid or retired. Let’s not make it any worse.

Undervaluing museum collections and taxonomic expertise is not just limited to New Zealand. The scientific world does not want to see another museum disaster, like the preventable fire that destroyed Brazil’s National Museum.

Whether it is collections under threat or museum libraries being lost in the digital age, or even false assumptions resulting in the closure of a museum, if chief executives and museum boards listen to their scientists and the scientific community, hope remains.The Conversation

Nic Rawlence, Lecturer in Ancient DNA

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Logging must stop in Melbourne’s biggest water supply catchment


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Clearfell logging in the Thomson Catchment with the Thomson Reservoir in the background.
Chris Taylor

David Lindenmayer, Australian National University and Chris Taylor, Australian National University

Continued logging in Melbourne’s water catchments could reduce the city’s water supply by the equivalent of 600,000 people’s annual water use every year by 2050, according to our analysis.

We calculated water lost due to logging in the Thomson Catchment, which is the city’s largest and most important water supply catchment. Around 60% of Melbourne’s water is stored here.

Since the 1940s, 45% of the catchment’s ash forests (including mountain and alpine ash forest) have been logged. There are plans to log up to a further 17% of these forests under the VicForest’s existing logging plan.

Past logging in the ash forests has reduced the Thomson Catchment’s water yield, which is the amount of water that flows through the catchment, by 15,000 megalitres (a megalitre is a million litres) each year. This equates to around 9% of water yield from ash forests across the catchment.

By 2050, continued logging in these forests at the current rates could increase this loss to 35,000 megalitres each year, or 20% of water yield. This will be equal to the water use of around 600,000 people every year, based on estimated water use of 161 litres per person each day.

Thomson Catchment showing the extent of ash forest, with historic and planned logging (left) and annual rainfall distribution (right).
DELWP, 2018; Xu and Hutchinson 2018; DSE 2007.



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Ashes to ashes: logging and fires have left Victoria’s magnificent forests in tatters


Why forests are important for water supply

The city of Melbourne has some of the best quality water in the world. A key reason for this is that the city’s first water infrastructure planners closed many of the key water catchments to intensive human disturbance, such as logging.

But there also can be competition for water between different land uses in catchments that are not closed and open to logging. Indeed, it has long been known that logging can significantly reduce the amount of water produced from forests, especially those close to Melbourne.

Research on forest hydrology shows that the amount of water yielded from ash forests is related to forest age. Catchments covered with old-growth ash forests yield almost twice the amount of water each year as those covered with young forests aged 25 years. This is because evapotranspiration, the process by which trees transpire water into the atmosphere as well as evaporation from the surrounding land surface, is higher in young forests compared with older forests.

Up to 200,000 trees per hectare germinate following logging or an intense fire which burns the whole stand. Intense competition between young trees results in rapid growth rates along with increased evapotranspiration. As the forest matures, the trees thin out, and after 200 years, an ash forest can have less than 50 trees per hectare. These older ash forests release more water back into the catchment.




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With logging occurring every 60-120 years, large areas of ash forest are kept in a high evapotranspiration stage of growth, therefore releasing less water back into the catchment.

Perhaps the losses in water yield could be justified if the value of the timber and pulpwood produced from logging exceeded the value of water. However, previous research has shown that the water in these areas is 25.5 times more valuable than the timber and pulpwood from ash forests.

What can the Victorian government do?

The ash forests in the Thomson Catchment are logged primarily for paper manufacturing. Under the Forest (Wood Pulp Agreement) Act 1996, the Victorian government is bound to supply Australia’s largest pulp and paper mills at Maryvale, owned by the Nippon Paper Group, with at least 350,000 cubic metres of native forest logs each year. The Thomson Water Supply Catchment is allocated for logging under this Act.

If logging was stopped in the catchment, what is the alternative for these paper mills? The answer is to source wood from current plantations. In 2017, Victoria produced 3.9 million cubic metres of logs from plantations. This could supply the pulp and paper mills at Maryvale several times over.

A challenge facing Victoria’s forest industry is the loss of jobs. One major factor in this is out-of-state processing. Australia tends to import lower volumes
of more processed and higher value wood products, including printing and writing paper. By contrast, higher volumes of less processed and lower value wood products, such as woodchips and unprocessed logs – largely from plantations, are exported.

Redirecting plantation sourced logs and woodchips from export markets to domestic processing can address some of these problems. In fact, detailed analysis suggests doing this would have an overall positive economic impact for Victoria.

Stopping logging in the Thomson Catchment and sourcing instead from well managed plantations could both boost water supply and create more jobs. Of course, some jobs would be lost for people who log from the catchment, but this would be more than compensated for by employment in the plantation processing sector.

The first Wood Pulp Agreement Act of 1936, which legislated supply of pulplogs from Victorian state forest to earlier paper manufacturers in Maryvale, featured a clause stating logging was to cease following the designation of the Thomson Catchment in 1967. This has clearly not occurred. In fact 63% of logging in the ash forests across the catchment has occurred since 1967.

The Thomson Catchment is the only one of Melbourne’s large water supply catchments open to logging. Given the critical importance of the Thomson Catchment, our work clearly indicates the Victorian government needs to cease logging and prioritise the supply of water to the people of Melbourne.The Conversation

David Lindenmayer, Professor, The Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University and Chris Taylor, Research Fellow, Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.