Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The costs of inappropriate taxonomy

Madracis auretenra
Yesterday's announcement to have a closer look at the new series in the Lancet sparked some interest and one of the emails I found particular intriguing. At least intriguing enough to talk about it first. My colleague Rodger Gwiazdowski forwarded me a paper from 2008 which I was completely unaware of. .

According to Rodger the publication is the best example I know of that estimates a dollar value loss from application of inappropriate taxonomy. And indeed I couldn't find any other papers that explicitly deal with the monetary consequences of mis-identifications. Before I go more into detail I would like to stress that this example particularly goes after what the authors call bad taxonomic practices. I am looking at this issue from a more general vantage point especially when it comes to species that are extremely difficult to identify using traditional morphology-based methods. Therefore, I'd like to define what I consider good taxonomic practice - the use of all necessary and available methods to properly identify an unknown specimen. This explicitly includes DNA-based methods. Many people call this integrative taxonomy in an attempt to bring the morphological and molecular world together. Even today in a world where DNA work has become really cheap there is still a large number of researchers claiming that it is too expensive to be done on a regular basis especially in taxonomy where financial resources are decreasing. This might also be particular true for researchers in developing nations that lack area-wide infrastructure to do molecular work. However, for the rest of us it might be worth to look at the publication by Locke and Coates which puts things in perspective.

In this paper we present the results of our attempts to discover the identity of specimens that have been named as Madracis mirabilis or as “Madracis mirabilis sensu Wells” in papers published since 1967. In particular we wanted to know whether these specimens were or were not Madracis auretenra. We also made a rough estimate of a dollar value for the research effort that might be considered wasted, if no species identity can be resolved. 

The authors essentially claim that data derived from false species identification cannot be applied in any analyses that have species-level implications and that spans all across the biological disciplines. In this study it is estimated that inappropriate taxonomy concerning the scleractinian coral species Madracis auretenra costed about $4 million dollars. That seems to be an extraordinary amount but to me their approach is reasonable and based on realistic estimates:

We know that data from 86 studies, which might be relevant to Madracis auretenra, cannot be included in a review of the biology of that well-studied,  widespread, and common species; in fact, at this point those data could not be included in such a study of any coral species. However, the same data may be applicable to very general questions about coral reef ecology and biology. Thus, conservatively, we suggest that only a third of the data produced in those studies has extremely limited value. If we consider that the cost of our studies [$140,000] is in a similar range to the studies we cited and apply a current cost to research over the whole period of the publications we consider, then we would be looking at a total expenditure of about $3,970,620 for data with limited to no value.

The authors go on and provide a list of taxonomic practices (morphology-based) that should be followed all of which I would consider common sense among colleagues. I would suggest to add DNA Barcoding to any such list. Why? Well, it costed the authors $140,000 to describe one species (Madracis auretenra) and to disseminate the information about ongoing mis-identifications. Even that seems too high to me. I am convinced if every newly described type specimen would be barcoded (even several specimens are not going to cost more than a few hundred Dollars) we could safe a lot of money in subsequent studies and even if we perform similar attempts to clean up a taxonomic mess such as the one involving Madracis auretenra.

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