Original Paper

Biodiversity and Conservation

, Volume 23, Issue 6, pp 1411-1424

First online:

Molecular taxonomic tools provide more accurate estimates of species richness at less cost than traditional morphology-based taxonomic practices in a vegetation survey

  • Ken A. ThompsonAffiliated withDepartment of Integrative Biology, University of Guelph Email author 
  • , Steven G. NewmasterAffiliated withDepartment of Integrative Biology, University of Guelph

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Vegetation surveys are conducted to obtain a catalogue of the plant species that occupy an area of interest, and are used to inform the decisions of policymakers about conservation, development, and remediation efforts. Currently, vegetation surveys rely on traditional morphology-based taxonomic practices to identify collected specimens. By implementing recent advances in molecular taxonomy, it may be possible to improve upon these methods and reduce the associated costs. In this study, we used both morphological and molecular taxonomic methods to sample 337 forest vegetation plots in northeastern Ontario, Canada. DNA barcoding—a molecular taxonomic tool—was used to identify specimens collected in the molecular taxonomic survey. The molecular taxonomic survey identified a mean of 12.4 species per plot and 202 species in total, whereas the morphological taxonomic survey identified a mean of 9.8 species per plot and 142 species in total; both surveys provided identical estimates of community similarity. The morphological taxonomic survey was 37 % more expensive than molecular taxonomic survey, owing largely to the increased time required in the field to collect specimens that flowered at different times. Our results indicate that molecular taxonomic tools are more cost-effective than traditional morphology-based taxonomic practices for species identification in vegetation surveys. Taxonomy underpins all conservation, and the implementation of molecular taxonomic tools for vegetation surveys has promise to lessen the consequences of the taxonomic impediment and increase the effectiveness of conservation efforts.


Community inventory DNA barcoding DNA taxonomy Ecological survey Environmental impact assessment Plant identification