Studying biodiversity: the biodiversity sciences

Basic to the study of biodiversity is the ability to accurately recognise and define the fundament units of biodiversity: the species. This concerns the science of taxonomy, which provides an objective base to organise and understand biological diversity, to define species (or taxon, plural taxa) as being ‘same’ or ‘different’. Only in this way can we:

  • make rational decisions about conservation, resource use and management
  • determine if species are unique, found only in a restricted geographical region (endemic), or if they have more widespread distributions (cosmopolitan)
  • distinguish native species from introduced pests or pathogens.

Once we understand these things we can only then begin to study other facets of the so-called biodiversity sciences:

  • Relationships between similar species and not-so similar species and how they evolved (systematics)
  • Relationships between individuals and populations of species (ecology)
  • Patterns of distribution of species, both present and historical ones, including the ability to predict species distributions in space and time (biogeography)
  • Processes of how species change when they become geographically and genetically isolated (evolution)
  • Development of models for understanding the multiplicity of relationships amongst species of life in an evolutionary framework (phylogenetics)
  • Impacts and relationships between environmental changes and genetic modifications to species (conservation biology).

Biological collections in museums and herbaria are the basis for effective taxonomy. These collections validate and underpin species identifications and faunal inventories. Species concepts can be unequivocally tested and verified against associated collection objects or specimens.

Taxonomy also provides:

  • Baseline data for management strategies on resource use and biodiversity protection. This includes studies leading to the nomination of areas that contain high natural heritage values, such as those with large numbers of unique (endemic) species, or sites of geoheritage significance.
  • Information to identify new resources, including pharmaceutical products, diseases, pests or introduced species. 
  • Information leading to the selection of appropriate species for clinical, ecological, genetic or other research. 
  • Identification of indicator organisms that reflect pathological or abnormal conditions, caused by human impacts or other influences, as measured by changes in the distribution and abundance of species and species-assemblages over time and space. 
  • Understanding the long-term responses of species and ecosystems to change through the study of the fossil record.