Taxonomy is the study of the classification and identification of animals and plants. Correct identification of organisms is the basis for all other biological studies. The determination of taxonomic relationships is critical to an understanding of evolutionary history, biodiversity, biogeography, comparative biology and community ecology. However, a substantial fraction of Australia's marine invertebrate fauna, and many of its fishes and marine algae remain undescribed.
Traditionally, taxonomic methods of classification have used a wide range of morphological characters, but biochemical, genetical (for example, RNA and DNA sequences), ecological, physiological and behavioural characteristics of organisms are contributing increasingly to taxonomic and phylogenetic analyses.
Not all universities offer specific courses in taxonomy, but courses in evolutionary biology may cover the principles, if not the practice, of the field. A student typically becomes involved in taxonomic research by undertaking a masters degree or doctorate in the discipline. Research projects may describe previously unrecognised species, investigate the taxonomic relationships between species, and perhaps generate hypotheses to explain their evolutionary history. Taxonomists require good powers of observation and usually have skills in computing.
Students of taxonomy are often co-supervised by practicing taxonomists employed in museums or herbariums where the necessary collections of research material are housed. However, taxonomists must also work in the field and many have active research programs in coastal and offshore environments investigating the composition and diversity of biotic communities. Many modern biochemical and molecular techniques require fresh material, and extensive field work may be necessary to collect material for study.
Marine taxonomists are employed by state museums and herbaria, and by the CSIRO, but lecturers and other researchers in universities also undertake taxonomic research. State and federal national parks or fisheries agencies employ people with an understanding of taxonomy and biodiversity to identify and manage representative marine and estuarine habitats. Similarly, people with a good grounding in taxonomy will be valuable assets to teams undertaking marine ecological studies and may be employed at technical or scientific levels depending on the skills, qualifications and duties required for the position. These teams may work in government or operate privately as consultants for other groups undertaking biological surveys or environmental impact assessments.
Photos: (Top) Crustaceans of the Order Cumacea are widespread in sedimentary continental shelf environments throughout Australia but probably less than 10 percent of the hundreds of species are taxonomically known. (Bottom) Taxonomists prepare to collect organisms by diving at Wilsons Promontory in Victoria.