Marine biodiversity and the need for systematic inventories

  • Mikkelsen P
  • Cracraft J
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Despite universal recognition of coral reefs as the 'ocean's rainforest,'
the focus of conservation is largely restricted to cnidarians, fish,
larger sponges, and macroalgae. These span a wide taxonomic range
and can be monitored non-invasively. But a biodiversity picture based
on so few taxa is dismally incomplete. As in the rainforest, the
overwhelming majority of species and clades on the reef are cryptic.
Worms, mollusks, echinoderms, and crustaceans are numerically dominant,
contribute to the trophic underpinning, and play pivotal ecological
roles. Other than a few charismatic species (e.g., starfish, tube
worms, conchs), they are underestimated and overassumed. Proper inventory
of such taxa requires factors not routinely employed in conservation:
physical sampling and systematic expertise. Yet scientifically robust
results can be achieved with minimal damage and investment, and lead
to recognition of key species, for which monitoring schemes can be
developed. Examples of recent surveys by systematists are provided,
involving echinoderms, mollusks, crustaceans, and worms from a variety
of marine habitats, and each showing significant results. Despite
this evidence of success, acquiring systematic expertise for inventorying
marine invertebrates continues to be a limiting factor. After decades
of de-emphasizing systematics, the cohort of trained systematists
is aging and facing non-replacement, even in museums where extensive
specimen collections, laboratories, and libraries provide the best
available support for systematic work. In today's climate of biodiversity
interest, new initiatives are attempting to reverse this trend. National
Science Foundation's PEET [Partnerships for Enhancing Expertise in
Taxonomy] Program is providing resources for training the next generation
of taxonomists working on poorly known groups. At the international
level, initiatives such as DIVERSITAS' Systematics Agenda 2000 International
Program are supporting new agendas to document reef biodiversity
and promote systematic inventory. The Convention on Biological Diversity
is calling for more systematic inventories to facilitate their goals
of conservation and sustainable development. Programmatic and financial
support for inventories by national, regional, and local conservation
and monitoring agencies are the next requirement.

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  • SCOPUS: 2-s2.0-0035684933
  • ISSN: 00074977
  • SGR: 0035684933
  • PMID: 200200023611
  • PUI: 34049783
  • ISBN: 0007-4977


  • Paula M. Mikkelsen

  • Joel Cracraft

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