Systematics Conservation

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Through use of scientific principles, systematists have revealed the remarkable diversity of plants, their distribution, and their evolutionary relationships. The 18th and 19th century expeditions of discovery brought attention to a remarkable and fascinating global  diversity of living things. Specimens were collected, catalogued, and classified. Through the use of names and classification systems, attention was brought to their identity and relationships.  Naturalists with diverse backgrounds and interests became increasingly aware of the many different kinds of plants, and their potential in agriculture, horticulture, and pharmaceutical use.  During the 20th century, systematics developed into a rigorous scientific discipline to describe and understand the origin and pattern of the life remaining on the planet. The 20th century began with the discovery of genetics, realizing its importance to evolution and systematics, and ended with the widespread application of molecular techniques that provide new insights into the diversity of plant life. However, the 21st century may likely witness the loss of much of that diversity. The ultimate goal of conservation biology is to conserve as much of remaining diversity as is possible. Systematics and conservation of biological diversity are inextricably coupled, and broadly trained systematists have much to offer in meeting the challenge of conserving biological diversity in the 21st century.

Some systematists serve as stewards (curators) of herbarium collections, which are a critical source of data also used by ecologists, geographers, and conservation biologists, among others. Herbarium specimens do not just represent samples of preserved plant materials useful only to systematists. Their labels document flowering and fruiting time, geographical distribution, ecological conditions, and associated species. Consequently, for conservationists, documented specimens provide data essential to estimating rarity and historical decline. Tabulating the number of existing sites as a proportion of the number of historic collection localities is often the first step in estimating decline. Analysis of such specimens and their accompanying data are used in the legal listing of species as threatened or endangered by resource management agencies. Specimen data also assist resource managers in locating potential habitats or localities where a species of interest may be found or where it might be recovered through experimental plantings. Conservation biologists are often faced with the problem of evaluating the potential of a given area for conservation purposes. Whether an area may contain only 1 or as many as 10 endangered species can be evaluated for conservation potential, based on initial surveys of specimens or the specimen-databases developed by systematists.

Conservation biologists are often faced with developing priorities, including how much effort to devote to preserving a species, which populations to preserve, or how much genetic variation is necessary to ensure long-term survival. For example, if a species is composed of several varieties, and one variety occurs at only one site and differs by only one or a few traits, should resources be devoted to its conservation, or should the effort be focused on another distinct, equally rare, and closely related species?  Are some closely related but equally rare species more genetically or ecologically variable than others? These and other questions are often analyzed and resolved best through the evolutionary (i.e., phylogenetic) framework provided by systematists. A broad understanding of morphological variation, biometrics, cladistics, and molecular techniques permit systematists to analyze and study such phylogenetic relationships. The classifications developed from such analyses provide the framework for storing much information and have considerable “predictive” power, which can assist conservation biologists in addressing the difficult question of which species needs to be prioritized for conservation. As systematists apply new molecular techniques or uncover genes of special interest in their own studies, they also are likely to provide valuable insight into the amount and extent in variation among populations, a question of great interest to conservation biology. The potential use of “finger-printing”, using specific but informative gene sequences, may provide the opportunity to identify particular species or populations, and also may provide tools for conservation biologists to survey groups of species or even local floras for species and populations of special interest.

Systematists often best serve conservation efforts by sharing their knowledge, thus enhancing the appreciation of plants, and engaging the public in learning about local or regional diversity. Systematists are highly qualified to interpret natural variation and often provide their service in the identification of plants, whether it is in a classroom, a workshop for resource managers, or to the general public. Curators, collection managers, and floristicians (botanists who study floras) are often the best source of information about the recognition and distribution of species. Systematists in universities and many botanic gardens often have colleagues who may work in the area of ecology and population genetics, fields that also contribute significantly to conservation biology. As a result, systematists can assist conservation biologists and local or regional resource managers, who may not always have the time or skills required for recognizing species of special interest.  The public may not be familiar with species of special environmental concern, but are often very interested in searching for them in their natural habitat, or assisting in conservation efforts.  Providing such information serves to instill an interest and understanding of local or regional floras, often results in the accumulation of new knowledge, and ultimately promotes conservation efforts.

Dieter Wilken, Santa Barbara Botanic Garden

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