Project Phoenix, funded by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University, has just completed a Coral Taxonomy Workshop at Orpheus Island Research Station on Goolboddi. The workshop included 13 participants from six different countries, eight different institutions and seven PhD students.
The primary aim of the workshop was to produce an Opinion paper with the theme “The status and future of coral taxonomy and the implications for biogeography, evolution, conservation, and management of coral reefs”. A secondary aim was to allow coral taxonomists working in disparate regions throughout the Indo-Pacific, including the Red Sea, Fiji, Japan, Singapore and Australia to get to know each other and discuss future collaborations. The task of producing a robust and comprehensive coral taxonomy will take a mountain of work on a global scale.
The workshop involved three days of discussion with each participant giving a presentation on their current research, followed by a general discussion of topics related to the theme of the workshop. All agreed that many more changes in taxonomy are on the cards, particularly at the species level where almost all recent research is revealing a far greater species richness and much higher levels of endemism that are currently reflected in the accepted taxonomy and biogeography.
Some of the more interesting topics broached were:
- The myth of taxonomic stability. Over the 250 odd years since Linnaeus, taxonomic instability was the norm. The few decades since “Corals of the World” are an outlier. Taxonomic instability is often used as an excuse for ecologists and biologist to ignore ongoing changes in taxonomy. The consensus was that coral reefs scientist need to understand that taxonomy is an ongoing process and that taxonomic change is an inevitable part of it.
- Phylogenomics is of limited use without taxonomy. A recent trend in coral reef science is to define genetic lineages without attempting to identify these lineages. Some of these studies are on a vast geographical scale with hundreds of samples. With a little more effort and a slight change in focus, these studies could have produced robust revisions of the various taxa which would add significantly to their utility.
- Cryptic species vs poor taxonomy. Most recently identified cryptic species and lineages are the result of poor taxonomy. We need to stop working within the “accepted” framework and test all nominal species with modern quantitative approaches. On a related matter, a common misunderstanding is that one is required to work within the accepted taxonomy. This is not the case. Any nominal species name is available to use if you think your species matches the type better than the senior synonym.
- The way forward; Types, topotypes, vouchers and international collaborations
The workshop also provided opportunities for the participants to enjoy snorkelling on the reefs of the Palm Islands group which, while patchy, are generally in excellent condition, particularly if you like Acropora.
Project Phoenix thanks the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies for funding the workshop, Vivian Doherty, Janet Swanson, Olga Bazaka and Dylan Hansen from the CoE for helping with the logistics and the staff at Orpheus Island Research Station for looking after us on Orpheus Island.