Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Difficult to Move Ahead Without Taxonomy and Taxonomists

    If you are a plant biologist (botanist), people around you expect you to recognize and identify plants in the surrounding areas and this irrespective of the branch of botany you have specialised in. It has been observed that many botanists having expertise in molecular plant biology, plant physiology, plant pathology face embarrassing situation when they are not able to identify and recognise plants. Scientifically, before starting any project with any plant it has to be certified by any taxonomical organisation and or taxonomists, so that it can be ascertained that the specimen collected is the correct plant. Moreover, taxonomists play an important role in studying the biodiversity of any region, nation and ultimately the planet. They also play an important role in identifying and integrating the traditional knowledge with scientific arena, though the individual may be ethnobotanist but their secondary stage is often attributed as taxonomists.

     Now another question arises whether taxonomy is limited to field only or when it reaches to laboratory after marrying to biotechnology, it gets different family name as 'phylogenomics'? More importantly this discipline is neglected at school and university level too. In many Indian universities, postgraduate seats for taxonomy specialization are left vacant. The reasons may be i) students may not be interested or ii) the interested students may not be assured of better future prospects in taxonomy. Even at research level, the funds allotted for taxonomical research are not sufficient. Specialized organisations and institutes pertaining to taxonomy and systematics are fewer in number. This situation may affect other programmes including environment, climate change, genomic studies, etc. Perhaps the scientific community has started feeling its necessity and a unanimous voice is emerging saying that it is difficult to move ahead without taxonomy or taxonomists.
    Recently, two plant molecular biologists, Professor R. Siva and Prof. S. Babu of VIT University, Tamil Nadu, India have expressed their anguish regarding the plight of plant taxonomy and taxonomists in India and the same has been published by Annals of Botany Blog (AoB Blog). The article states that,

"The fact is that India lacks expertise in the field and there is a scarcity of knowledgeable taxonomists in India. At present, there could be only few ‘finger-countable’ plant taxonomists in India, the country where vast reserves of flora are yet to be studied. Many legendary plant taxonomists are either no more or retired with no replacement. The sporadic and limited studies on taxonomy in India are mainly oriented towards angiosperms. Cryptogams are long neglected from both taxonomical documentation and research exploitation".
Professor R. Siva, realized this plight years back in 2005 and had expressed his views in a supplementary issue (Education Plus) of a reputed national newspaper, The Hindu. There also he alerted and mentioned that,
"If this condition persists, at one point in time botany and zoology will have to be categorised as `endangered subjects".
...thereby leaving the question on the major disciplines of life sciences . They have also referred some earlier publications of an Indian Journal 'Current Sciences' (Dharampalan, 2001 ; Hariharan & Balaji, 2002; Kholia & Fraser-Jenkins, 2002) which emphasize the fate of taxonomy and taxonomists in India. Professor Siva and Babu not only raised the plights but also proposed the ways to change the current scenario. According to them, 
  • Proper recognition of plant taxonomists in the form of awards and rewards.
  • Specialized institutes on plant taxonomy in addition to Botanical Survey of India so as to make enough room for job opportunities.
  • Introduction of plant taxonomy in the existing syllabi of undergraduate biology and biotechnology courses.
  • Establishment of more number of research centres in the name of “Institute of Plant Biology”, with plant taxonomy focus.
    Indian Botanists Blog-o-Journal extends its support to the above proposal and takes forward to highlight this plight of taxonomists and encourages discussion among scientific community.
    Chief -Editor of Annals of Botany Dr Pat Heslop-Harrison expressed his pleasure that Indian Botanists Blog-o-Journal (www.indianbotanists.com) has come-up in support of taxonomy and taxonomists and has scheduled to publish an article 'Difficult to move Ahead Without Taxonomy and Taxonomists'. Further he states that,
"The lack of taxonomic expertise following a long term decline is widespread".
    He supported his statement based on a report submitted five years ago by, the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee in the UK. “The state of Taxonomy and Systematics in the UK is unsatisfactory – in some areas to the point of crisis – and more needs to be done to ensure the future health of the discipline” wrote the committee. Dr. Pat also informed that in 2011 another very valuable and high-profile report was published in the UK recommending development of a national strategy in taxonomy and systematics. This had many important recommendations ranging from the nature of long-term funding support required (taxonomy does not fit into a 3-year grant cycle!) to the deficit in training and need for PhD support. It also saw the role for ‘citizen scientists’ – volunteer scientists from the public – working alone or with professionals". However he further also adds,
"I think it is also important that we recognize how quickly the field of taxonomy has advanced in the last decade. Since the APGIII (Angiosperm phylogeny group III) completed their work, we know the phylogenetic positions and relationships of all but eight families. Clearly, molecular analysis of DNA has changed the way that taxonomists can work, but still does not take the place of detailed research and knowledge of groups of plants".
Further Indian Botanists tried to take views and opinions on, 'how difficult is to move ahead without taxonomy and taxonomists?' Here are some excerpts, 
Plaban Bhattacharya, PhD-Research Scholar from Calcutta University, correlates this issue with population, health and traditional medicine. "Proper identification of herbs by a scientific manner is very essential for correct authentication and thereafter scientific validation. In today's world of "specialization", proper identification of herbal healers is pre-requisite and it can only be reliably performed by the certified professionals of that field specifically. The role of taxonomist is very important in this regard, just like the learning of a language in a proper manner may lead to a well-balanced poetry" said in a reply when asked to comment on this issue.
Uma Singh, a botanical entrepreneur said, "though I am basically related to plant physiology and tissue culture, I feel we understand the origin, function and proper use of the botany through taxonomy only".
Ceepy Berry does not think that identification is a big issue. "I think the idea is to make people realize that the essence of learning and studying life forms in general is to be able to perceive in one's own way the enormous diversity that prevails! If we are able to observe, assimilate and respect this kind of learning then identifying is no issue", was the response when asked to comment on this issue.
No biology no life. No taxonomy no biology.....was the quick response of Ravishankar , the founder and managing director of Aurobindo Bio Solutions. He further adds, "Global biodiversity is being lost at an unprecedented rate as a result of human activities, and decisions must be taken now to combat this trend. But how do decision-makers decide where to establish protected areas if they don't know what is being protected? How can regulators identify and combat harmful invasive species if they cannot distinguish them from native species? How do developing countries ensure that they reap the benefits of the use of their biological diversity, if they don't know the biological diversity that is being used?
From the above discussion, it may be concluded that there is an urgent need of taxonomists who can work in an integrated manner for biological diversity and others. It is the taxonomists who can tell what are available, what are the species likey to be endangered or extinct. They can only identify the plants in which lies our traditional knowledge. The situation has to be improved from undergraduate level of academics to high end research. As discussed above taxonomy and taxonomists needs proper recognition. The project frame work may be devised to meet the requirement of taxonomy. Recommendations from high profile study committee may be invited for the betterment of this discipline, in general, and to Indian context, in particular. Mind it, all your efforts go worthless if you have reported a wrong plant name.
Indian Botanists would be grateful for your comments on this issue.


  1. can anyone tell me the name of the indian taxonomist who published maximum no of taxa ever

    1. M. R. Almeida with 356 is on top of the list so far.....

    2. Mr. and Mrs. Almeida....Flora of Sawantwadi.


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