Tag Archives: taxonomy

It’s Taxon Time

Written by: Maryanne Venables, Strategic Learning

The “Zoo Animals” went into the tin with the blue lid, while my “Farm Animals” went in the tin with the green lid. The animal kingdom, as I knew it, lived under my bed in Streets ice-cream tins. All were classified, according to contexts developed from the songs, books and experiences of a four-year old. Fast forward to 2012 and, as a Museum Educator, I am delighted to be sharing the topic of Animal Classification with the next generation of biologists, taxonomists or collectors.

Queensland Museum has re-launched Animal Classification into our range of school programs. Bookings are now being taken for Yr 3-7* classes to experience a value-added program to enrich your Museum visit

If the  concept of Animal Classification makes you numb, let us please change your mind. School programs are delivered by the Museum Learning team, using real collections to elicit real experiences. This is a valuable option in an increasingly virtual world.

Students can interact with real museum specimens

This program primarily responds to Science Understanding descriptors in Australian Curriculum: Science for Yrs 3 and 7, but also addresses Science as a Human Endeavour and Science Inquiry Skills for Yrs 3-7.

So how does classification apply to our lives? You don’t even need to be a collector to use it. We find classification systems everywhere – from libraries to supermarkets. Things that are in some way similar are arranged together for comprehension and convenience.

So how does animal classification apply to our lives? Animals are grouped as part of the process that describes or identifies them down to an individual species. This helps us effectively communicate information about them. Understanding characteristics of a particular species or group can affect our health and welfare, economic growth and ability to effectively manage the conservation of our wildlife.

Dr Karl Kruszelnicki has shared the virtues of the dung beetle since the CSIRO introduced several species to Australia in the late 1960s. The objective was to manage a bi-product of grazing and its impact on fly control (the bi-product that wasn’t destined for our taste buds or footwear). Selected species were introduced to a number of Australian climates and ecosystems resulting in a biological control success story. Our approx 350-400 species of native dung beetle evolved to mostly feed on the smaller, drier, fibrous dung pellets of marsupials.

The hard-working Honeybee

Other examples of genus-specific relationships are applied in agriculture (both in pollination and pest management). According to the Queensland Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Honeybees add an estimated $4 – 6 billion to Australian agricultural and horticultural industries, annually.

Further examples of identified animal groups have supported medical research. Studies of Tammar Wallaby and other marsupial forms of milk have provided medical researchers with a template for investigating antimicrobial compounds, potentially resistant to “superbugs”.

Examples of animals helping humans can be ‘reciprocated’ in conservation campaigns. Most Queenslanders are aware of the plight of the endangered Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat. Distribution once extended south to the Victorian border. By the 1980s, a drastically reduced population was reportedly (without the advanced surveying methods in use, today) around 35 wombats. A remnant population in Epping Forest National Park (South-West of Mackay, Queensland) was recognised as the last chance to protect this species. Since then, wombat numbers have been carefully monitored and protected, reaching around 138 today. In 2009, the colony was deemed at risk should an environmental disaster such as fire or flood affect the region. To mitigate this, the decision was made to establish a second breeding colony 600km south at Richard Underwood Nature Refuge (near St George, Queensland). Recent reports (May 2012) indicate this second population is stable with the current “snout count” at seven females, three males and three joeys in good condition.

The Northern-Hairy-Nosed wombat is critically endangered

A smaller cousin, the Southern Hairy-nosed Wombat has maintained a conservation status of ‘Least Concern’, although recent reports suggest it, too is affected by similar threats.  These include reduced/replaced food plants and possibly toxins from introduced weeds. Relationships determined by the classification of animals can help us to make informed decisions. Are we prepared to learn from the past to determine the future?

The Animal Classification theme is supported by a range of Queensland Museum exhibitions and resources.

* Please note:  Secondary school, teachers can also select a Biodiversity and Classification program, which can be tailored to your unit of work by prior arrangement.

Come Fly with me!

Dr Christine Lambkin is Curator of Entomology at Queensland Museum. She is responsible for the museum’s collections of Diptera (flies), Coleoptera (beetles), Orthoptera (grasshoppers), Hemiptera (bugs), Phasmatodea (stick insects), and a number of smaller insect orders.

Dr Christine Lambkin

Chris Lambkin’s main research interest is the Order Diptera (flies), especially bee flies (Bombyliidae) and stiletto flies (Therevidae). There are about 100 families of flies in Australia and Australia boasts the best fauna of the Therevidae in the world. However, a large percentage of these flies are still not described.

Bee Fly, Villa sp.
Beefly, Wurda windorah, feeding on pollen

Chris is a taxonomist. That means, she identifies and describes new species, in this case, new species of bee flies and stiletto flies. To identify a new species is a time-consuming process because world-wide collections have to be investigated to make sure that the species has not been described before and that it is, indeed a new species, and not just a variant of an existing species. A taxonomist needs to determine the variation in the species; how much is clinal variation, and how much is outside the species limits. If the specimen is like no other species within the genus, then it is described and given a new species name.

World-wide research is needed because when insect specimens were first collected in Australia, some of them were taken back to England and other places around the world and described there. Many Australian bee flies were described by the Frenchman Macquart and stiletto flies by Kröber, a German priest.

Stiletto fly, Evansomyia sp.

In determining new species, Chris needs to examine: the organism’s distribution; all species within the genus that have ever been seen; and check to see if the morphological differences are consistent across the species. i.e. the differences have to be consistent within the species and distinctive between species.

Stiletto fly – new genus of Therevidae

Sometimes DNA studies are done to determine genetic similarity when there is difficulty with some species or with the relationships between species. Fresh material on which to do the DNA studies is needed in these cases.

Chris is also involved in systematics. She estimates relationships between species. She codes morphological characters and molecular data into computer programs to work out these relationships. Large matrices of data are produced and Chris is very adept at these computer analyses.

So a taxonomist is a very valuable guide for the ecologist, molecular biologist, pest manager, and other biologists. Taxonomy provides a way of describing our biodiversity, so that we all know what we are talking about, and that we are talking about the same things. Taxonomy is like all science, inexact by definition, and based on testable hypotheses. More information, from whatever source, may change both the name and the classification of an organism.

Chris is continuing to identify new species of flies as part of FLYTREE – the Assembling the Tree of Life project for the Order Diptera.

To find out more about the work that Chris does, visit her Biography page.

You can find out more about the wonderful adaptations of the Bombyliidae by viewing the video on Bee Flies.

Teachers can download the Animal Adaptation Worksheet which has a Student Worksheet linked to the Australian Science Curriculum.