Some thoughts on DNA barcoding and biological recording

This blog was migrated to this website on 17/02/15 from the previous Tomorrow's Biodiversity scratchpad website.

I recently took part in a really interesting email discussion with some other NFBR members (National Forum for Biological Recorders) prompted by the recent publication of a paper on metabarcoding. I think it's fair to say that many biological recorders are very cautious about the use of DNA barcoding as a tool for monitoring biodiversity. There is a perception that the development of DNA barcoding may threaten the traditional morphological identification skills of the biological recorder. I have a more optimistic outlook and the rest of this blog is derived from an email I contributed to the email discussion.

Homepage of the iBOL Lepidoptera Barcode of Life project.In my view molecular techniques will support the study of natural history, but they won’t do natural history for us! People interested in nature want to know what is around them and we will always rely primarily on our own senses for that (you can’t jump on everything and make DNA soup of it!), so recognising taxa by morphological and behavioural differences will always be a fundamental skill of natural history.

I think that for some taxonomic groups (e.g. that which interests me - spiders) molecular ID has the potential to speed up the learning of morphological/behavioural differences by providing quick and reliable feedback on determinations. And I think it could result in more natural historians achieving a higher level of competence in morphological ID techniques more quickly. Far from snuffing out natural history skills, I think that it will spark a renaissance in them.

For Gilbert White, Darwin and a host of early naturalists, biological identification and biological records were just aspects of their craft which enabled them to pursue their major interests in natural history, ecology, evolution etc. But in the second half of the 20th century natural historians – biological recorders as we tend to call ourselves now – have become, for good reasons, very focused on the collection of biological records as an end in itself. Sometimes there’s an almost obsessive focus on the dot map.

Molecular ID techniques have the potential to vastly increase the rate and efficiency with which we collect biological records and it could open up new avenues of interest and exploration for natural historians. Perhaps in the 21st century natural historians wielding these new tools will have more time to go beyond the biological record. Perhaps they will take us back to the roots of natural history and help us to uncover more details of the ecology of the taxa we study and, consequently, better understand the function of the ecosystems in which they exist.