I just came across a very interesting opinion paper titled “No name, no game” published in the European Journal of Taxonomy.
The paper was written by Yves Samyn of the “Belgian National Focal Point to the Global Taxonomy Initiative” (I think we all agree they need an acronym) and Olivier De Clerck of Ghent University. I’ve known Yves since we were both on a field trip in KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa) many years ago, and Oli is a great colleague and friend who I’ve worked with very closely for over ten years.
They argue that, in contrast to what Joppa et al. (2011) claim, today’s taxonomic workforce is not sufficiently large to describe the remaining pool of missing species within a reasonable amount of time. This is in the first place because much larger numbers of species remain to be described for many understudied taxa than for the well-studied groups of organisms that Joppa et al. (2011) included in their analysis. In addition, the massive numbers of unnamed species in the Genbank and BoLD databases suggest that there is another layer of undiscovered diversity remaining to be characterized (coined “dark taxa” by Rod Page). This is certainly relevant for algae as these unnamed species (e.g. “Rhodymenia sp. 1SA“) are discovered en masse when DNA barcodes are generated and “dark algal species” are accumulating rapidly in Genbank (see figure below; >75% dark taxa in the three main algal groups in 2011). The great majority of these discovered species remain without a proper name because formally describing them is much more laborious than discovering them.
Yves and Oli argue that this widening gap between the number of discovered and described species is problematic, focusing their argument on the fact that these newly discovered species do not have names. They argue that scientific names matter for society, for example because legislation (e.g. CITES) uses species names as currency.
While I agree with most of the paper, in particular the part about promoting an increasing role for developing countries in characterizing their biodiversity, I think that Yves and Oli fail to make a convincing case for their “no name, no game” statement. In my opinion, traditional binomials are not needed for legislation to work or for scientists and non-specialists to communicate about species. When the bird flu hit, the specialist as well as the greater audience knew and understood what H5N1 was. Just like professional and amateur astronomers have no trouble communicating about “55 Cancri e”. What would make biologists different? All one needs to communicate about a species is some sort of identifier, not necessarily a formally described species binomial.
When it comes to legislation and conservation, I agree that it is important to be able to pinpoint exactly what is being conserved. But once again, does it need a binomial? Not having to go through the process of describing a newly discovered species would permit that species to be conserved more rapidly. Furthermore, for legislative purposes, diagnosability of the species should be more important than the name of the species. And at least for algae, where DNA data have become the gold standard for species delimitation, DNA sequences are rapidly becoming much more reliable for species identification than morphological keys to named species. While the DNA vs. morphology contraposition should not play a major role in this discussion, it is relevant because the great majority of dark taxa are discovered through DNA sequencing and can future collections can easily be identified as the dark taxon in question with a DNA barcode. In other words, DNA sequencing has changed the game, and because of that I think we should think more along the lines of “no name, new game” instead of “no name, no game”.
Once again, I agree with what Yves and Oli wrote about the taxonomic workforce not being large enough to describe the remaining pool of species in understudied groups within a reasonable timeframe using traditional procedures. As do I agree with most other points made in the paper. But do we really need formal species binomials for all newly discovered taxa? Are there arguments that support the “no name, no game” statement that I have overlooked here? Or arguments in favor of the “no name, new game” alternative that I have not mentioned? I welcome your ideas in the comments.