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Invertebrates under the microscope

Karen Richards
Forest Practices Authority

Beddomeia sp. snails were the subject of Karen Richards' presentation at the conference.

The 10th Invertebrate Biodiversity and Conservation Conference, in conjunction with the Conference of the Society of Australian Systematic Biologists, was held in Melbourne from the 4th to 7th of December 2011.  The conference included three major themes:  (1) tropical invertebrate diversity from rainforest to reef; (2) species in principle and in practice – morphological & genetic approaches to defining species boundaries; and (3) biodiversity & biosecurity - can one work without the other? There was a wide array of papers presented around each theme.

Day 1 saw many papers presented under the marine and tropical invertebrate diversity banner. Highlights of the day included the keynote presentation by Vojtech Novotny on the research being conducted in Papua New Guinea (PNG) on invertebrate food webs in tropical rainforests, which was fascinating, as well as a presentation on forest biodiversity as a key to monitoring responses to climate change across China and Australia. Not only was the PNG research outstanding, it also demonstrated the importance of involving land managers (in this case the local community) and encouraging them to participate and contribute to the research. The China project demonstrated the importance of invertebrates in the climate change debate. Other talks on the first day focused on marine invertebrate richness and tropical insect diversity, but there were also several presentations on spider diversity and other topics.

The theme of "species in principle and in practice" (Day 2) was introduced by keynote speaker Lyn Cook who engaged the audience with discussions on the concepts of ‘species’ and the science behind taxonomy, while Michael Braby explored the ‘subspecies’ concept. Apparently it is all down to the species concept chosen for a particular study e.g. whether you use the ‘biological’, ‘morphological’, CO1 barcode or ‘phylogenetic species concept’.  The increasing role that phylogenetic analyses play in species identification and taxonomic research was evident, with >70% of the papers presented using these methods as the preliminary, or supporting, taxonomic tool.  Presentations to follow included a number on subterranean invertebrate diversity, then a more diverse series with an underlying theme of the use of DNA techniques to determine species delimitation.

I presented my talk (view abstract) on Day 3, when discussions turned to issues of biodiversity and biosecurity. The first keynote speaker and subsequent presentations were focused on climate change, specifically comparing the susceptibility to climate change of temperate and tropical insects (Ary Hoffman), investigating the conservation threats to alpine cockroaches (Stephen Cameron), and looking at the resilience of wetland invertebrate communities to climate change (Jenny Davis).  This symposium was much broader than those on the previous days, capturing a more diverse group of topics, including a group of papers on freshwater invertebrate species and a number of papers exploring the effects of fire regimes on ant distribution and invertebrate community structure.

Across the three days, the main topics presented  included a cross section of marine and terrestrial invertebrate diversity; however, a couple of others stood out, such as the presentation on the diversity of nematodes on dead marsupials and a presentation on ornithology (yes, birds at an invertebrate conference! ... but this can be excused because it was also a systematics conference).

Major themes that emerged from the presentations throughout the conference included: (1) the important role that phylogenetic analyses play in uncovering the diversity of species; (2) the issues surrounding the use of phylogenetic vs morphological analyses in recognizing new species; and (3) the number of species that have been described compared with those remaining to be worked on. Using a phylogenetic approach as the principle tool to resolve taxonomic issues was a continuing theme, indicating this to be an emerging competitor to morphologically-based taxonomy.  The questions of the validity of this approach and the management of any future species listed on threatened species legislation based on this taxonomy were raised, although these remain to be resolved.

Overall, the conference was a very interesting and informative three days well spent.

Biobuzz issue fifteen, December 2011