Canada

Canada lacks biodiversity data: scientists

Canada's declining ability to keep track of its biodiversity leaves the country vulnerable to invasive species, extinctions and poor environmental policy, a new report says.
Biodiversity data that has been collected in Canada is housed mainly in museums, like these specimens at the Canadian Museum of Nature. It is mostly inaccessible on the internet, where other countries' biodiversity data can be found. ((Kate Porter/CBC))
Canada's declining ability to keep track of its biodiversity leaves the country vulnerable to invasive species, extinctions and poor environmental policy, a new report says.

The gaps in data about the country's plants, animal, fungi and microbe species may also limit the country's ability to respond and adapt to global changes such as a warmer climate, says the report released Thursday by the Canadian Council of Academies.

"Canada may lose the long-term information … essential to understanding changes in biodiversity and our ability to make informed policy and management decisions," said David Green, director of the Redpath Museum at McGill University in Montreal and a co-author of the report. 

Already, such decisions are "often made with limited information," due to knowledge gaps across the country and among different groups of species, said Luc Brouillet, a professor and curator at the University of Montreal's Marie-Victorin Herbarium, another one of the 14 co-authors.

The report was commissioned by the federal Heritage Ministry on behalf of the Museum of Nature from the Council of Canadian Academies.

The brown spruce longhorn beetle, a European pest that attacks trees, wasn't identified in Canada until 10 years after it was first collected, says UBC researcher Sarah Otto. ((CBC))
It warns that Canada's ability to manage its biological resources is slipping at a time when species extinction rates are unprecedented in human history, due to threats such climate change, habitat loss, exploitation, pollution and invasive species.

Sarah Otto, director of the Biodiversity Research Centre at the University of British Columbia, said some of the consequences are already being felt. For example, the brown spruce longhorn beetle, a European pest that damages trees, wasn't identified until 10 years after it was first collected in Canada and had had a decade to spread.

"A 10-year gap is a 10-year gap in the ability to fight invasive species," Otto said.

Unknown species at risk

She added that biodiversity and taxonomy data are also critical to identifying and protecting endangered species: "We can only protect that which we know about."

Biodiversity knowledge can also help in the response to problems associated with environmental changes, Otto said.

For instance, as Canada grows warmer the ticks that carry Lyme disease do better, she said. Distinguishing between different species can help with the treatment of the disease, as it progresses differently depending on its origin.

Some of the study's other findings were that:

  • Biodiversity data collected in Canada is housed mainly in museum cabinets. It is mostly inaccessible on the internet, where troves of other countries' biodiversity data can be found. In addition, 80 per cent of Canadian online biodiversity data is held outside the country.
  • The number of expert taxonomists in Canada who can manage biodiversity collections and interpret data is dwindling, and jobs for them have nearly vanished.
  • In some cases, collections of specimens are being rendered unusable because of a lack of staff, infrastructure and national standards.

The report's authors recommended dedicating more money to training taxonomists while expertise is still available in the country and making digital records of its collections of plant, animal and fungi collections.

Brouillet estimated the digitization effort would cost at least $150 million, but is urgently needed by decision-makers.

"The ecologists and managers, they need the data now."

The panel that conducted the study was chaired by Thomas Lovejoy, biodiversity chair at the Heinz Center for Science, Economics and the Environment in Washington, D.C.

Lovejoy, Green, Otto and Brouillet spoke Wednesday at a briefing hosted by the Science Media Centre of Canada ahead of the report's release.