Dr Chris Lyal studies insects in the Natural History Museum's Department of Entomology, where his speciality is the largest of all beetle groups, the weevils. As well as his research work he is the UK National Focal Point for the Convention on Biological Diversity's Global Taxonomy Initiative and for several years worked as a Programme Officer for the CBD Secretariat. He has visited many different countries both for research and while working with people on biodiversity policy and capacity-building issues.
The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) has the objectives of conservation, sustainable use and fair and equitable access to the benefits arising from the utilisation of genetic resources of biological diversity. However, irrespective of what we decide to do about biological diversity we are unable to do anything very much (other than let it all go extinct) unless we know what that biological diversity actually is. Imagine trying to buy for and then cook a dish from a recipe book if none of the ingredients had names, or planting a new garden from seed if none of the seed packets had the contents identified. Without knowing what species are present in our environment we cannot find out the correct conditions to manage them, we will not be able to tell if populations are rising or falling, we cannot pass legislation to protect them, and we cannot share information about different sites.
Some 519 species of birds are recorded from the UK – if I’m honest, I can only identify somewhere between 50 and a hundred of them reliably without recourse to a book. The UK also has some 4,000 species of beetles (4,001 I believe), and no comprehensive book that allows me to identify each one of them. Now each one of these species is (a) of intrinsic interest; (b) carries its own multi-million year ancestry; (c) has a place in the ecosystem, and thus a part in maintaining that ecosystem; (d) has a value to humanity, either through its ecosystem function, its beauty (yes, even beetles) or its ability to do a job for us (like beetles eating their way through tons of invasive weed). If the people we ask to manage our environment cannot identify the species they are managing, they will be unable to ensure the species are still there in ten year time, let alone a thousand. They cannot be conserved, nor used in a sustainable way. Oh, and an additional problem: so far we have given names to around 1.8 million different species of animals, plants and microroganisms around the world; we think there may be around 30 million altogether. Most biodiversity is unnamed.
Which brings me to taxonomy. Institutions such as the Natural History Museum and Royal Botanic Gardens Kew have on their staff experts in naming and identifying species, the science called taxonomy. They also have vast collections of specimens from all over the world, and scientists from all over the world come to use them and solve problems in their own countries. This expertise and these collections are a vital part of managing biodiversity, and so are important to the CBD. So important, in fact, that the CBD set up a separate policy area just about the science, the “Global Taxonomy Initiative”. This is intended to create the policies needed to train and employ more taxonomists, build up collections and infrastructure, and above all make sure that taxonomic work is directed to producing the information needed at the right time and delivered to the right people in a way they can use it. At the Nagoya meeting there will be further discussion of taxonomy, and how it needs to be directed to support the management of biodiversity around the world.