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UJ’s taxonomist Prof Annah Moteetee takes action on the state of the discipline

​With over 100 000 known species, South Africa is the third most biodiverse country in the world, only after Brazil and Indonesia. It comprises approximately 21 000 species of plants, accounting for 10% of the world’s plant species.

According to Annah Moteetee, Head of Department and Professor in the Department of Botany and Plant Biotechnology at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), there is a dire need for the strengthening of human capacity in plant taxonomy to keep abreast of the rate of new discoveries.

Professor Moteetee pointed out that the need for taxonomy is imperative as organisms that are not known and which remain unidentified and uncharacterised cannot be protected, thereby limiting the capacity to understand them and to assess the influence of environmental change and other alterations in their condition, when she delivered her professorial inauguration address, From plant diversity and traditional knowledge to chemicals and microbes. Prof Moteetee’s inaugural took place in the University’s Council Chambers, Madibeng Building, Auckland Park Kingsway Campus on Tuesday, 14 May 2019.

Read the speech

Prof Moteetee explained that one of the mandates for the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) is “the co-ordination and promotion of taxonomy in South Africa”, and also to facilitate access to biodiversity data, among other responsibilities. One of the ways in which SANBI provide access to data is the publication of national and regional floras as well as checklists. “Therefore our research as taxonomists contributes directly to SANBI’s efforts to meet its mandate,” explained Prof Moteetee.

“Despite the low or lack of citations for taxonomic papers, I have continued my taxonomic work in revising priority genera, starting with Alchemilla (Rosaceae) and the parasitic genus Sopubia (Orobanchaceae) as well as other unstudied genera such as Millettia (Fabaceae), as part of training future taxonomists. The importance of documentation of ethnobotanical information cannot be over-emphasised, therefore this work will continue, especially with areas the Free State Province in mind as it is understudied,” she said.

She highlighted that numerous plants have shown good antimicrobial activity and therefore need to be subjected to further research. “There are two projects which have bioprospecting prospects which should be explored. Several wild indigenous fruits and vegetables were found to have good nutritional value, these will be studied further to determine their dietary quality and nutrient availability as well as toxicity levels.”

Prof Moteetee explained that the world around taxonomy and taxonomists continues to change. Broad acceptance of the reality of the biodiversity crisis has opened up new spheres of relevance and opportunity for the discipline. “But this is no time to be complacent. Taxonomy and taxonomists have undergone a remarkable few decades of rapid disciplinary evolution, but if we do not continue to evolve and adapt, then like many of the species that we study, we risk extinction.”

From 2008 to 2011, Prof Moteetee has served as a member of the South African Biodiversity Information Facility (SABIF) Steering Committee, and was part of the delegation that represented the country at the 15th Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) Governing Board meeting held in Arusha, Tanzania. She served as Vice-Dean: Teaching and Learning, Faculty of Science from 2011-2015 and also as acting Executive Dean of the faculty (from August 2013-September, 2014). She is currently Head of the Department of Botany and Plant Biotechnology. She enjoys cooking, listening to music, and reading Paulo Coelho when time permits. She is married, has four children (including her late sister’s son), and 5-year old twin grandchildren who she loves dearly.

Professor Annah Moteetee
From Left to Right: Prof Andre Swart, Chief Operations Officer, UJ; Prof Annah Moteetee, Head of Department: Botany and Plant Biotechnology; Prof Debra Meyer, Executive Dean: Faculty of Science, UJ.
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