Plight of Plant taxonomy and taxonomists in India: What, Why and How?

An entry by R. Siva and S. Babu of VIT University.

The identifiable Aeschynanthus radicans
If you can’t identify Aeschynanthus radicans how can you do science? Photo: Jacinta Lluch Valero/Flickr

Plant Systematics involves the recognition, comparison, classification and naming the millions of plants that have existed and exist at present on the earth. India is rich in plant diversity and possesses almost 7% of the world’s flowering plants.1 In addition, India has a relatively good number of bryophytes (approximately 3000) and pteridophytes (approximately 1400). Most of the plants reported in India are based on the work of British taxonomists like Hooker or Gamble. 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

This subject has failed to attract the young researchers. One reason could be the educational system in India. Different branches of science are perceived not to have equal value. For instance, only few universities offer botany or zoology courses for graduate studies. If this situation persists, at some point in time, botany and zoology will have to be categorized as `endangered subjects’.2

There have been several earlier publications emphasizing on the fate of taxonomy and taxonomists in India3-5 as well as other parts of the world.6-7 Despite there has not been much change in the overall scenario. This has undoubtedly left a great deal of vacuum in this important field of taxonomy.

We propose the following as initial ways to change the present scenario in this aspect.

  1. Proper recognition of plant taxonomists in the form of awards and rewards.
  2. Specialized institutes on plant taxonomy in addition to Botanical Survey of India so as to make enough room for job opportunities.
  3. Introduction of plant taxonomy in the existing syllabi of undergraduate biology and biotechnology courses.
  4. Establishment of more number of research centres in the name of “Institute of Plant Biology”, with plant taxonomy focus.

Acknowledgments:

We sincerely thank Prof. Sean Mayes, Department of Crop Genetics, University of Nottingham and Prof. R. Uma Shaanker, University of Agricultural Science, India for their critical comments

References

  1. Ajmal Ali M. & Choudhary R.K. (2011). India needs more plant taxonomists, Nature, 471 (7336) 37-37. DOI:
  2. Siva, R., 2005. ‘Science becoming `endangered?’’, The Hindu, Education Plus, Oct. 31st.p 8.
  3. Dharmapalan B. (2001). Role of funding agencies for the betterment of taxonomy, Current Science, 81 (6) 629. PDF: http://www.currentscience.ac.in/Downloads/download_pdf.php?titleid=id_081_06_0629_0629_0
  4. Hariharan G.N. & Balaji P. (2002). Taxonomic research in India: Future prospects, Current Science, 83 (9) 1068-1070. PDF: http://www.currentscience.ac.in/Downloads/download_pdf.php?titleid=id_083_09_1068_1070_0
  5. Kholia B.S. & Fraser-Jenkins C.R. (2002). Misidentification makes scientific publications worthless – save our taxonomy and taxonomists, Current Science, 100 (4) 458-461. PDF: http://www.currentscience.ac.in/Volumes/100/04/0458.pdf
  6. Wägele H., Klussmann-Kolb A., Kuhlmann M., Haszprunar G., Lindberg D., Koch A. & Wägele J.W. (2011). The taxonomist – an endangered race. A practical proposal for its survival, Frontiers in Zoology, 8 (1) 25. DOI:
  7. Guerra-García J.M., Espinosa F. & García-Gómez J.C. (2008). Taxonomy today: an overview about the main topics in Taxonomy, Zoologica baetica, 19 15-49. URL: http://www.ugr.es/~zool_bae/vol19/Zoo-2.pdf

Photo: Aeschynanthus radicans by Jacinta Lluch Valero. This image licensed under a Creative Commons by-sa licence.

  • We would be delighted for you to reproduce this interesting and thoughtful post; I have just written to Dr Siva to check with him, and the authors should be named.
    Formally, AoBBlog content is Creative Commons CC-BY-SA which means you don’t need to ask for permission (of course I would tell my students that it was nice to inform authors as a courtesy).
    We at AoBBlog always follow the content of IndianBotanists.com and enjoy reading your discussions.

  • “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 House of Lords Science and Technology Committee in the UK, 5 years ago http://www.nerc.ac.uk/research/programmes/taxonomy/documents/uk-review.pdf. Thus the lack of taxonomic expertise following a long-term decline is widespread. Recognition of the problem is the first stage towards its resolution, and in 2011 another very valuable and high-profile report was published in the UK recommending development of a National strategy in taxonomy and systematics – http://www.nerc.ac.uk/research/programmes/taxonomy/documents/national-strategy.pdf . 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.

  • 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 http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1095-8339.2009.00996.x/abstract) 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. Fortunately, we have a herbarium in my university in Leicester and use it for teaching as well as taxonomy – I posted a video on Youtube last week showing part of the collection http://youtu.be/cUjy2DS3AzQ

  • Again, we are slowly getting awareness,regarding the consequences of plant systematics.Without taxonomy it is not possible to study biodiversity.Therefore, the days are not far off to renew the importance of taxonomy.

  • “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 House of Lords Science and Technology Committee in the UK, 5 years ago http://www.nerc.ac.uk/research/programmes/taxonomy/documents/uk-review.pdf. Thus the lack of taxonomic expertise following a long-term decline is widespread. Recognition of the problem is the first stage towards its resolution, and in 2011 another very valuable and high-profile report was published in the UK recommending development of a National strategy in taxonomy and systematics – http://www.nerc.ac.uk/research/programmes/taxonomy/documents/national-strategy.pdf . 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.

    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 http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1095-8339.2009.00996.x/abstract) 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. Fortunately, we have a herbarium in my university in Leicester and use it for teaching as well as taxonomy – I posted a video on Youtube last week showing part of the collection http://youtu.be/cUjy2DS3AzQ

  • Thanks a lot Editor, Dr Pat Heslop-Harrison for your valuable insights. To make this issue more comprehensive we have published an article ‘Difficult to move ahead without taxonomy and taxonomists’ http://www.indianbotanists.com/2013/03/difficult-to-move-ahead-without.html?spref=fb . We would also like to extend our thanks to Prof. R Siva who expressed his pleasure regarding the same through e-mail.
    Indian Botanists (http://www.indianbotanists.com) would be grateful for your comments there.
    Regards
    Team IndianBotanists