Taxonomy is the practice and science of classifying things or concepts. Those of us in the business of information science know it as the essential tool to make content findable, regardless of the subject. Many others know it as the branch of science concerned with identifying and classifying species. It is not always regarded as the most cutting-edge field of study, but new and streamlined approaches to the taxonomy of flowering plants has potentially powerful implications for food research and the conservation of biodiversity.

Many assume that after several centuries of exploration and collection, the work of describing and naming the world’s flowering plants would be essentially complete. Even if we know for the most part which plants there are, how much variety there is, and how plants relate to each other in terms of environmental biology, some species still remain to be discovered.

There are 3,870 herbaria worldwide containing in excess of 100 million specimens gathered over centuries with the number of herbaria and specimens having doubled since 1960. On the basis of these huge and detailed collections, decisions are made about key issues such as the conservation of biodiversity or the use of wild types of plants to enhance the selection of future food crops.

This is where taxonomies come into play.

Frequently the same plant will be given different names in different collections. Research shows that the problem of synonyms affects nearly two thirds of published names. Then there is the issue of misidentification. The same research shows that there may be as many as 40,000 completely new species of flowering plants in herbaria, currently wrongly identified or without any name, and waiting to be discovered.

This would increase the number of flowering plants known to science by more than 15 percent – without collecting a single further specimen.

Some of the world’s herbaria can be accessed online through GBIF, the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, which exists to inform better decisions for conservation and sustainable use of the biological resources of the planet.

But based on previous research discoveries, it indicates collections could be inaccurate and therefore decisions made on their basis will be misguided.

Taxonomy is starting to look like an essential way of making sense of the mess; the mess being critical information that could affect our food supply for decades to come. So on a very small scale that affects a very big problem, it is easy to see how taxonomies still matter today and for the foreseeable future.

Melody K. Smith

Sponsored by Access Innovations, the world leader in thesaurus, ontology, and taxonomy creation and metadata application.