Collaboration to Consciously Change the World: Filling in the Taxonomic Information Gap
Changing the world is something we do every day, without even being aware of it. Our species is changing the world all the time; for better, for worse…. We usually inhabit this world without realizing that there are more species living with us, without us, or even in spite of us. As biologists, as taxonomists, we face the “taxonomic impediment;” it means that many species become extinct before they have even been discovered by scientists. Discovering, describing, naming and explaining biodiversity are the daily goals in the work of the scientist trained as a taxonomist.
Plants are a group of living things that are familiar to us since childhood. They provide nourishment and make our spaces a more pleasant place. The Earth has been inhabited by plants for hundreds of millions of years, so they have had an evolutionary path in which different species have originated, each with its own particular characteristics, from morphological, molecular, to a unique distribution.
A little part of that big plant diversity is the genus Antiphytum, which is interesting because it only occurs in America in a way called disjunct, which means a gap in its distribution: some species are in North America, but others in South America without intermediate representatives. A first question related to this kind of distribution is whether the species in both regions belong to the same genus. The species from North America were more known, but a large information gap existed on South American species. Therefore, in our general goal of obtaining a comprehensive knowledge of this genus, it was imperative to explore and investigate the species in South America.
Our research led us to establish links with researchers in Uruguay. The information we had on Antiphyum in South America was scarce and was reduced to two briefly documented species. Once in Uruguay, I was able to observe specimens from the Herbarium of Universidad de la República (MVFA), which lighted me about a different species from the ones I was seeking. Discovering of new species occurs not only out in the field! However, this species had a previous name. In the past, a botanist named José Arechavaleta did a great work called “Flora Uruguaya”, in which he described this one and another species within the genus Myosotis, belonging to family Boraginaceae as Antiphytum, the group of my interest. When I saw the traits and features in the specimen that Arechavaleta described as Myosotis berroi, I knew that it was an Antiphytum, but none of the known. It was stimulating! Imagine the surprise, the excitement of seeing something that everyone else sees, but that makes sense with the eyes of a taxonomist trained in a group.
This was going very well: we were adding one more species to the diversity of Antiphytum in South America! We were filling the information gap about this genus in this region by transferring the species from Myosotis to Antiphytum! This was not just a name change, but the recognition of common characteristics shared by species of a same lineage that help explain their evolutionary trajectories.
Even better (from the perspective of a Latin American botanist), we were recognizing and recovering the information from a local work. Many plants of the New World were named by European researchers. That is not bad in itself, the problem is when a previous local effort was made, but it was ignored by several reasons.
For the other Arechavaleta’s species we could not obtain a correct name, but we found the original specimen on which Arechavaleta based its description of this species, and this was also a great achievement. With our research, we have set people’s sights on these species and point out the need to search for and collect more specimens of them in Uruguay and Brazil, where current occurrences of Antiphytum berroi are unknown. What we do know of this country comes from herbarium specimens from areas currently destroyed. That is the “taxonomic impediment” in action.
We are continually changing the world, and the world is shaped by a million interactions among species unknown to people, but which have a bearing on our lives. Taxonomists try to make these species less unknown to everyone. Maybe for many, Taxonomy is a very basic science, but it offers us the best opportunity to document and describe the biodiversity of our planet. Moreover, it promotes the collaboration among researchers from different regions of the world, all moved by the same purpose: the love for investigating biodiversity, its causes and explanations. From our discipline, we are consciously changing the world.
This response is in reference to:
Novon, 30(1): 80-91. (2022).
Nidia Mendoza-Díaz, José M. Bonifacino, Marina Díaz, Hilda Flores-Olvera
Dr. Nidia Mendoza-Díaz
I am from Oaxaca, Mexico. I grew up proud of my roots, but when I decided to study biology, I wanted to know more than just human lives. I am a botanist. Researching plant diversity is what I like to do the most, since I graduated from UNAM, until today.
What drew you to the research topic you explored in your submission?
The plants are marvelous. They can survive without moving in severe habitats, but at same time they move to colonize other places. Antiphytum is a genus with amphitropical disjunct distribution and for the overall understanding of this genus, it was essential to know the South American species. The great thing about this research was also the opportunity to establish relationships with researchers in Uruguay and to recover an important historical work about the Uruguayan Flora.
How do you see your work contributing to public policy, citizen science, and/or science education more broadly?
It is not easy from the basic sciences to link the knowledge to an immediate utility to human activity, but when we know more and more about our world, our minds are capable of marveling at what surrounds us. That is what science is all about: wonder, observation, questions and obtaining information that, although at first sight it may seem unimportant, in the future could be of some use in our lives.
What are your continuing research goals for the future (near and/or far)? What topics, areas, subjects are you interested in exploring?
Biology is a very broad field. Within this science, I love to discover, describe and try to understand the reasons for biodiversity in our world, particularly in my country. We are blessed with an amazing plant diversity that is mostly unknown. However, there is alack of taxonomists to deal with it. I want to continue my research on the family Boraginaceae and contribute to the Flora of my country, but also explain interesting patterns we find in this family, such as the commonly disjunct distribution. And, of course, to share this, because it is very fascinating.
Is there anything else you want to share about you and/or your research?
We need to know more about the biodiversity that inhabits our world. That is urgent and necessary. We could lose not just the information from this unknown biodiversity, but also the great opportunity of marveling of the vast and exciting evolutionary way that this species have been through. Think about that: we have only traveled a short distance together. The nature does not know geographic limits, and I am grateful that this research allowed me to cross borders and combine efforts with other wonderful Latin American collaborators who also seek to document their flora.