January 03, 2023

The Curious Case of Tiarella in the Time of an Extinction Crisis


Recently on iNaturalist, there has been a flurry of comments appearing in my (very old) observations of Tiarella. New taxon commits and new species concepts are common, but this one seems to have really got folks lit up about how this particular concept came about and has been adopted by iNaturalist curator(s.) I WAS PINGED ABOUT IT ON INSTAGRAM! Weird how these things travel, honestly.

I think it's an interesting case study of taxonomy in the time of an extinction crisis. Taxonomy is the foundational backbone upon which we understand biodiversity and therefore how we protect biodiversity. For those who care about about the financial side of this, there is an actual economic impact to getting it right or wrong. Public, private and philanthropic funding sources go into conservation initiatives, while the actual "ecosystem services" of our various habitats goes mostly unquantified (we're trying) but increasingly recognized as invaluable. The folks that fund this work rely on the scientific community to advise them on how best to funnel their funds (well, ideally that's how it should work and sometimes it does actually work that way!)

So understanding WHAT a species is, means we also understand how rare (or not) it is and therefore influences some kind of measured weight on "biodiversity importance."

The Paper

The paper that's cited by the taxon commit is Guy Nesom's July 2021 publication in Phytoneuron. The botanical community has a long running (informal) list of species that we know probably needs to be looked at. This informal list is the fuel for many fun and exhausting, inebriated discussions at conferences. These discussions are almost like American Gladiator for botanists - whoever can go down the most tedious morphological and/or molecular rabbit hole and retire to their rooms last, wins!

As I recall when I was a field botanist, Tiarella was on that long to-do list. We all know it needs work and Nesom, thank the lawd, published his first stab at this in Phytoneuron - a non-peer-reviewed journal that is fantastic for just getting your work out there and prompting discussion. This is a legitimate first step in sparking a discussion about the Tiarella species concept, and the next step is typically that someone does more work on it (say, molecular, or more field work, or quantifying some of the observations presented in the Nesom paper, etc.) and publishes THAT and a concept. This is the scientific method.

The Controversy

The paper is the core justification for the taxon commit and there are a lot of people who have observed Tiarella. It's pretty. It's a long-lasting spring ephemeral. People have a lot of opportunity to see it and go "ohhh" and snap a photo and upload it. It's no wonder that so many people have spoken up about it simply due to the quantity of observation and observers!

The taxon commit based on a single paper alone is the controversy.** There's a lot of criticism* of this, but that's not really what I want to focus on, as I think the discussion here is higher level and more impactful from a conservation standpoint.

Moving at the Speed of Scientific Publications

Fun fact, I failed General Chemistry in college 3 times! One of the only things that really stuck with me from those classes was the idea that chemical reactions happen at the speed of the slowest step. What a great metaphor for teamwork!

Right now, there is a significant dissonance between the extinction crisis we face and the core mechanism of science that is the Peer-reviewed Publication. This extinction crisis happens on a scale that can be really difficult for folks to wrap their heads around, so looking at a parallel crisis can be useful. Let's take a global pandemic, for example!

During the early days of Covid-19, a flurry of publications flooded a wide variety of respectable journals, but many of these journals were suddenly inundated with a backlog and the temporal nature of publishing an observation before someone else (a critical component of ones scientific career) became muddled, important observations were sometimes even lost in the chaos, and other gnarly consequences. And in the meantime? Some of the most interesting and insightful discussions that were had amongst virologists, epidemiologists and viral ecologists were had on accepted, safe forums for pre-print publication and discourse. These included but are not restricted to Reddit and Twitter (RIP.) The speed of the Covid-19 crisis and our ability to respond to it could not wait for the backlog of peer-reviewed science. (Read more about this in David Quammen's "Breathless")

The "Peer Review" Crisis is long in the making - I'm not the only one who's flexed my amateur wings on forums like this and others, griping about this, its myriad shortcomings and pontificating its consequences.

So What's the Alternative?

I'm not sure there really is a solution, but maybe that's the shortcomings of my own imagination? There are some attempts to propose methodologies and mechanisms to improve taxonomic consensus, such as the index of taxonomic uncertainty (ITU) proposed by NatureServe Chief Botanist Wes Knapp, et al.

But what about the forums themselves? Some agreed upon safe space for us to exercise the long tradition of Questioning Everything? Is it iNaturalist? Is it Reddit? Is it Phytoneuron or something else?

In the time of an extinction crisis, it seems more important than ever to have a mechanism by which we can more quickly turn our niche taxonomic discussions into actionable consensus. Tiarella is just one taxon that exposes the issues to a much wider audience!

Next Steps

My strongest personal opinion of this post, thus far! I think it's high time we have a discussion as a community - a serious discussion with an agenda and goals and free of ego and emotion- around the dissonance between an extinction crisis and the mechanism of the peer reviewed journal, and solutions such as methodologies like the ITU and how they can be implemented efficiently and formally, with the goal to scale our ability to drive consensus around taxonomic quandaries.

Maybe it's a pipe dream? Maybe taxonomy is just too cumbersome to speed it up? But that's just one of many questions that I think is high time for the community to formally discuss and address, with consequences well beyond the scope of muddling some iNat observations.

*Observed criticisms, not to distract

  • The paper is based largely on just some herbarium specimens, alone
  • The paper presents no real data or analysis
  • The paper was eventually accepted by FNA, POMO, etc. and why? (this gets into other squishy controversies around things like reputations and privileges' etc that the scope of my post above doesn't attempt to dive into.)
  • The conclusions are premature

**Oversimplification, one of many
The controversy isn't exactly that it's based on ONE PAPER, as in you could present a badass, super thorough paper and propose a concept and it could be accepted. I think the main thing that surprises folks (and I'm probably coloring this with my own perspective here, admittedly) is that there are limits to the paper and its methods. It's largely a review of some herbarium specimens and a light spatial analysis of some morph characters (stolons, namely.) In a time of accessible, modern molecular tools, these kinds of spatial analyses alone are not typically enough to accept a concept outright. These papers are great starting points for a discussion, though! And a great clue! Again - the scientific method. Some student was just handed a badass thesis to them on a silver platter. You better thank Nesom. But this again leads folks (and these conversations ARE happening in the dark corners of the interwebs) to ask questions about why it was accepted at all. This gets us to those "privilege" and "reputation" comments alluded to above. OOOF! Someone else can take that blog up.

Posted on January 03, 2023 06:22 PM by trichomanes trichomanes | 2 comments | Leave a comment


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