You Need to Know: The Boffa Miskell Taxonomy Laboratory

10 August 2022

Aotearoa New Zealand has a diverse aquatic invertebrate fauna, and these tiny animals perform vital roles in ecosystems. While it can be fairly straightforward to survey invertebrates from freshwater and marine habitats, a thorough knowledge of the taxa or species collected is an essential part of understanding and assessing the health status of these ecosystems.

Invertebrate taxonomy is essential in assessing the impact a project might have on a local ecosystem, and the species or communities that inhabit it. But it’s not only development projects – Aotearoa’s regional councils have a responsibility to monitor, enhance and protect marine and freshwater ecosystems. Part of this requires regional councils to carry out annual State of the Environment (SOE) monitoring programmes; which involve ecologists collecting a huge number of invertebrate samples from freshwater and coastal waterbodies. These are processed by taxonomists within councils, or sent to dedicated laboratories for processing, identifying and counting all the animals in each sample.

This is the work that Dr Matthew Jones and Courtney Cook do from Boffa Miskell’s Tauranga-based taxonomy laboratory. They carefully sort through aquatic samples to identify and count the invertebrates collected by our ecologists, and from the SOE samples collected by regional councils. Their work provides crucial information on the health of marine and freshwater ecosystems.

Prior to 2019, Boffa Miskell ecologists sent samples to external laboratories for processing. Today, our in-house laboratory allows us to provide timely turnarounds and aid in the quick generation of client-focused solutions.

Marine and freshwater taxonomy and the provision of these data comes with interesting challenges. There is no ‘big book of what lives here’ and information sources are often fragmented. While there are resources for some of New Zealand’s better-known invertebrates, taxonomic information for other groups can be quite limited. For example, in the freshwater realm the linkage between larvae and adults awaits resolution for many insect species. Reference material can be decades old, with large numbers of species awaiting formal descriptions. Furthermore, not all groups have been researched equally; we know a lot more about seashells than we do about polychaete worms, and this is out of proportion with those species’ numbers and their importance to the functioning of marine ecosystems. These knowledge gaps can have important ecological implications.

Successful identifications are a satisfying exercise in detective work, and Boffa Miskell taxonomists have created a series of visually focused quick identification guides — because what you see in a sample is not necessarily what you see in reference material. Traditional identification guides focus on the largest and best-quality specimens but, in real-life invertebrate samples, animals can be immature or damaged, making identification more complicated.

The screen-based guides that our taxonomists are compiling are based on years of taxonomy experience and combine the most up-to-date science with real-world laboratory photos taken of the animals “as seen in samples”. For example, a baby cockle at 1mm looks quite different to a 35mm adult (and the same can be said for many other marine and freshwater invertebrates). These guides are continuously augmented, providing another useful tool for Boffa Miskell’s taxonomists.

For further information please contact Dr. Tanya Blakely