School of Anthropology & Conservation

Excellence in diversity Global in reach

Gail Austen

Eyeing-up Biodiversity: How we Identify Species


Supervisor(s): Dr David Roberts (Main), Dr Markus Bindemann and Professor Richard Griffiths

profile image for  Gail Austen

Conservation and taxonomy go hand-in-hand, but despite the wealth of conservation initiatives worldwide, the Convention on Biological Diversity has identified a global ‘taxonomic impediment’. We are unable to estimate the number of species on Earth to within an order of magnitude, extinction rates are accelerating, and the task of cataloguing Earth’s biodiversity is immense.

There is an increasing requirement for large datasets to provide an understanding of the environmental changes that lie ahead, and we are ever more reliant on citizen scientists. Species identification has a large part to play in society, and is especially important to those for whom understanding of nature is inherent to their livelihoods. Advances in molecular techniques have been swift and are becoming more accessible, but widespread species identification remains heavily reliant on visual cues. Our lack of understanding of the process of species identification, and any potential biases, makes it difficult to assess observational data and provide adequate training. However, the process by which we identify and describe species is poorly understood.

This PhD aims to apply psychological knowledge to taxonomic study for the first time. Psychology has a long history in providing models and methods for studying the cognitive processes involved in visual classification. This interdisciplinary approach aims to greatly improve our understanding of species identification, and the synthesis of the study of taxonomy and visual perception will help the assessment of observational data, and lead to improved training programs.

back to top
Austen, G. et al. (2016). Species identification by experts and non-experts: comparing images from field guidesScientific Reports [Online] 6. back to top
  • University of Kent Scholarship
back to top

School of Anthropology and Conservation - © University of Kent

School of Anthropology and Conservation, Marlowe Building, The University of Kent, Canterbury, Kent, CT2 7NR, T: +44 (0)1227 827056

Last Updated: 01/12/2016