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Impediments to Taxonomic Research

A decline in both amateur and professional taxonomists has been documented (e.g., Stuessy and Thomas 1981; Hopkins and Freckleton 2002), with reductions or elimination of jobs in museums and universities for those trained in taxonomy. There are few skilled and trained bat taxonomists, slowing fieldwork as well as the publication of comprehensive taxonomic revisions, species lists, field guides, and popular works on bats. In part, this appears due to what has been described as a “classic market failure” for taxonomy (Aylward et al. 1993; Hoagland 1996). Taxonomy is an “externalized” cost:

Growing out of a tradition of reciprocity and collegiality, taxonomists frequently do not charge clients directly for their specialized services and products, such as identifications and biodiversity databases, even though the users of these services and products now extend far beyond their fellow taxonomists. These service activities are often ancillary to a taxonomist's basic monographic work, for which he or she receives grant funds, or subsidizes on his own or through his employers. The cost of doing taxonomy is not factored into most biodiversity or ecology projects. Research grants (even in taxonomy) and ecological monitoring activities rarely include funds for the curation and care of voucher specimens, or the establishment and maintenance of museums. (Hoagland 1996)

The result? A reluctance by employers to hire those who do not bring in funds and cause a perceived drain on the institution, and a reluctance by students to pursue taxonomy as a career in favor of fields offering more money and jobs. While there are a growing number of young bat taxonomists in the developing world (Anwarali Khan et al. 2010; Douangboubpha et al. 2012; Soisook et al. 2013) where educational institutions are newly committed to developing and protecting local biodiversity, the lack of funds for taxonomy still presents a substantial impediment (Aylward et al. 1993). The few taxonomic experts in developed countries that still remain are discouraged from pursuing taxonomy in regions of the world where both the biota and their ecosystems are most understudied due to a combination of stricter local specimen export laws and lack of funding. Additionally, the low impact factor of taxonomic journals is a major impediment for academics at non-museum institutions whose performance reviews for promotion hinge largely upon the impact factor of journals in which they publish (Venu and Sanjappa 2011).

In most scientific fields, including other disciplines of systematics, specialists have grouped themselves in associations that publish journals and act as lobbies to promote their discipline and defend their members. However, there exists no international or national scientific society specifically devoted to the promotion of taxonomy, the publication of general papers on the discipline, its theoretical background, its history, or its problems and its future. In part as a result, taxonomists are typically under-represented in official or unofficial bodies that play significant roles in shaping scientific policies, budgets, and definition of priorities. Yet, taxonomists are critically needed for research in understudied groups, such as bats, especially in developing countries. Without any formalized society, it becomes difficult to pass on the expertise and shared standards that are essential to all other fields in biology, including conservation.

The reduction in numbers of taxonomists in institutions in developed countries and the increase seen in developing countries is complicated by a great deal of historical baggage. Type specimens (the actual specimens to which scientific names are attached) and important taxonomic literature are still based in institutions in developed countries, and there is still an imperative need for repatriation of information as well as capacity building outside these centers. Capacity building can occur at three different levels: individual (build individual ability to contribute to taxonomy), institutional (modernize museum infrastructure and policies, increase the level of curatorial proficiency in staff), and societal (engage the public in understanding and learning about biodiversity and being held accountable for it). Lack of access to available information is then also a part of the taxonomic impediment to conservation, not just lack of research in the discipline.

Progress has been made recently to increase accessibility of resources housed in institutions in developed countries. Digitization of type specimens of bats by some of the larger museums (e.g., American Museum of Natural History), increased availability of literature through online sources, increased training in developing countries, and increased collaborations between Western taxonomists with young taxonomists from developing countries have begun to counter gaps in knowledge and training. Collections research fellowships are now available at some institutions to provide researchers with funds needed for visiting museums and inspecting specimens first-hand. Developing countries now see an increase in new bat taxa described in international, open-access journals by in-country scientists. New, well-maintained, and actively used natural history collections now exist in places like the University of Phnom Penh, Cambodia; Prince of Songkla University, Thailand; and the National University of Laos, thanks to local support and funding by NGOs such as the Darwin Initiative, the Systematics Association, and the MacArthur Foundation. Older collections in species-rich tropical countries, such as at the National Museum of the Philippines, the Museo de ZoologíaMamíferos, Pontifica Universidad Católica del Ecuador, and the Museu Nacional, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, have refurbished outdated collections spaces and benefited from increased access to information and increased local capacity as talented local scientists have helped reignite interest in conservation and biodiversity initiatives.

Museum collections and historic taxonomic descriptions themselves may, counterintuitively, present impediments to taxonomic research. While today's taxonomists use morphological and genetic data (when available) to establish species limits, such modern methods have only come to the fore recently. Many older species names are attached to poorly preserved type specimens, sometimes dry skins, museum taxidermy mounts, or specimens that survived long sea voyages pickled in rum or other spirits. These specimens may be so damaged that viewing important features, or any features, from the published descriptions is impossible, leading to confusion regarding the recognition of the species in question. In some cases, the type specimens have been lost or destroyed and new type specimens (known as neotypes) must be designated, again introducing the possibility of confusion. Older names are often based on brief and sometimes inadequate descriptions that fail to provide sufficient detail to facilitate distinction from similar species. Even when faunas have been well surveyed, these issues of taxonomy frequently cause confusion about the number and identity of species inhabiting a particular region. Taxonomic confusion may contribute to the inability to properly attribute a name to organisms or integrate new data, barring species from protection that they may have been granted had they been accurately recognized and complicating conservation efforts.

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