Senckenberg Topics

Taxonomy for Sustainability

A relatively small group of scientists around the world, the taxonomists, are working to identify all existing species. Most of these species are still unknown, especially in the deep sea. The health of our biosphere depends on the biodiversity of our earth and the biological interactions of the species with our common environment.

Climate change and other man-made changes in the environment endanger existing and undiscovered species. Dr. Kai Horst George from the Senckenberg am Meer Institute explains where taxonomy can help here and what the work of a taxonomist looks like in everyday life.

Dr. George, you are the head of the Meiobenthic Arthropoda Department. What do you do every day and what role does taxonomy play in your work?

From a scientific point of view, I dedicate myself to two main topics: the systematics of certain marine benthonic copepods, i.e. copepoda harpacticoida, and the question whether seamounts and oceanic islands play a decisive role in the spread of these tiny copepods in the seas. I also describe scientifically unknown species that I find in material collected from seamounts, islands, the deep sea and other oceanic areas. I also compare copepods found on seamounts and islands to determine whether they differ in terms of species composition and diversity, and whether there are species that are widespread in the oceans. For me as a trained zoo-morphologist, the research field of taxonomy is essential. A well-founded and comprehensive knowledge of species is incredibly important to be able to clearly assign found organisms to an already known species based on their shape, the expression of certain characteristics, and gender-specific differences, or to be able to recognize them as “new”, i.e. as scientifically unknown species. This is essential for my research in both systematics and faunistics.


What has been the most exciting or trickiest ‘task’ thus far?

I just finished work on a manuscript that deals with a very extensive and consequential systematic revision of a group of Harpacticoida, the Ancorabolidae Sars, 1909. This work, which is based on consistent phylogenetic principles and only takes into account morphological features, goes further than Ancorabolidae and includes other Harpacticoida, which are presumed to be related to the former. This work has been very demanding for me in the past year because I had to collect and compare many characteristics within a very large group of copepods in order to try to identify the natural kinship system of these animals. In addition to the direct comparison of the animals, I also had to deal with a wealth of literature, with identification keys, with descriptions of species, some of which go back well into the 19th century, and with systematic revisions by other colleagues from earlier times. That was extremely exciting, and this work always reminds me of that of a detective who has to meticulously follow all clues, and leads, in order to solve a case.


More information about Taxonomy and how to advance it. The text in English is available at the bottom of this page.

In your video about the meaning of taxonomy you speak about previously undiscovered species amongst other topics. What meaning does it have to our research and which consequences does it have for us as a society?

We know today that the number of known organisms on our earth, almost 2 million, is only a small part the total number of organisms. Estimates thus far have ranged from a couple to many millions of undiscovered species. Each organism, from the biggest to the smallest, is vitally important to its respective ecosystem and, through their relationship to their environment and the other species, contributes to a huge and very complex network of all the
planet’s ecosystems, which we call the “Biosphere”. People, who have only recently started to recognize this complexity, all too often make hasty decisions when dealing with their environment for a variety of reasons (desire for economic success, increased consumption, cost minimization, etc.). This very often has fatal consequences for the ecosystems and the organisms that are rooted there. An example would be the destruction of tropical rainforests, excessive littering into our oceans, or the excessive use of pesticides in industrial agriculture. These example are just the beginning of the unprecedented proportions we must now deal with regarding climate change, dramatic damage to (ground) water, and more global issues which grow larger each day. But if the ecosystems, and their biological and non-biological components, are weakened or even destroyed, this leads to a collapse of the biosphere and
ultimately to the destruction of our own livelihood.


How can taxonomy help protect the biodiversity of our earth, and what damage does it draw attention to?

In my opinion, taxonomy is the foundation for all further biological and ecological studies. We can only understand life and all its associated interactions, which we have a significant influence on, if we learn the biological components, i.e. the species! It’s not enough to know how many species appear somewhere, which is often sought nowadays with the help of genetic methods. This allows certain statements to be made about species diversity however doesn’t fully recognize the complex structure but the complex structure. Here the taxonomy, especially the morphological taxonomy, helps us move further.

The naming and detailing of species not only makes them “tangible”, but also allows the species-specific structures (construction of extremities, mouthparts, internal organs) to be tackled in a way which is systematic, evolutionary, function-oriented, and biogeographical. It also covers ecological questions on the basis of precise documentation. In addition, it is only possible with the help of morphological taxonomy to include fossils, i.e. a large-scale temporal aspect, in investigations. Ultimately, the taxonomy is also relevant for species protection, because targeted species protection is only feasible if the species to be protected is also known. The fact that we only know a fraction of the species that populate our earth, combined with our carefree, even unscrupulous handling of our environment, means that we are the first species to conjure up a collapse of the biosphere. Taxonomy exists in part to draw attention to this, and allow us to make changes so our world is healed rather than destroyed.

How can the future of taxonomic research (in Germany, but also internationally) be strengthened, and what challenges does taxonomy face in modern times of digitization and networking?

In order to restore the status of taxonomy both within the scientific community and in society as a whole, which it still held a few decades ago, it is above all important to make this fascinating and important field of research known again. The video mentioned should also contribute to this. We definitely need new talent, especially in morphologically oriented taxonomic research. To do this, it is necessary to re-anchor morphological taxonomy in the university curricula, to set up appropriate professorships and staff positions, and to provide financial resources. Museums need to be aware that their collections are unique treasures that help to understand the complexity of the biosphere and the interactions that structure it. Morphological taxonomists employed in museums and corresponding research institutes must no longer be viewed as “outdated”, even obsolete relics of a bygone era. Rather, the relevant institutions have to realize that with morphological taxonomy they have a field of research at their fingertips that is of almost inestimable value, especially in today’s world, in order to be able to tackle the problems that are falling over us. The hope placed in the video is that the population will see it that way and that they will begin to put pressure on those responsible. New technologies (digitization, molecular taxonomy) are welcome and very helpful additions. In the context of the “integrative taxonomy” there is the possibility to combine traditional with modern methods and thus significantly advance the recording of biodiversity and the understanding of our biosphere.

Comments to the video:

Millions of species inhabit our planet and create a highly diverse but fragile network of biological interactions with the environment: namely, the biosphere! However, most of these species are still unknown, especially in the deep sea. This, combined with the increasing influence of humans, endangers the biosphere – the basis for human survival. All over the world, a comparatively small group of experts are working hard to expand our knowledge of the biosphere: these are the taxonomists! Using a variety of methods and technologies, deep-sea taxonomists around the world register, describe, and study species, creating indispensable knowledge that is needed for further biological research. The taxonomy offers no direct economic “benefit” to humans; it is therefore often viewed as irrelevant or unnecessary in our short-sighted, for-profit society. But time is running out. The rapid extinction of various species, stemming from human activity, is reducing our planets biodiversity. When our fragile biosphere collapses, humanity will inevitably follow. Hence, there is an urgent need to strengthen the science of taxonomy. Universities, professorships, jobs, and sufficient financial support for taxonomists are urgently needed! Please promote the taxonomy and support the taxonomists by talking to your family, friends, neighbors, local communities and schools, national politicians, and educating yourself on the subject!

To preserve biodiversity, promote taxonomy – it is past time that we start!