Taxonomy: sexy and we know it

Here in the lab we do both taxonomy and ecology. The balance between the two shifts back and forth depending on projects and time of year and the like; in the last couple of weeks, things have definitely swung towards taxonomy. So that’s what I’m going to talk about in this post.

Believe it or not, there are people out there (scientists even!) who think that taxonomy is not relevant, is not “marketable”, is not even science! I think that those people are: 1) narrow-minded, and 2) wrong. I’m always willing to argue that taxonomy is relevant, and that it is science, and that it is, yes, “sexy”.

It’s been a Big Taxonomy couple of weeks around here for a few reasons. The biggest is that my recently graduated Ph.D. student Chris Borkent has just published the first big paper from his thesis work — a taxonomic revision of the fungus gnat genus Leptomorphus (see Borkent and Wheeler 2012 under Publications). It’s 117 pages of species descriptions, illustrations, keys and phylogenetic relationships. “Who cares?” you may ask. Well, lots of people do, and lots more people should. Fungus gnats, you see, are one of the most diverse and abundant groups of Diptera in forest habitats, where they play a major role in food webs and ecological dynamics. So, if you care about sustainable forest management, or decomposition and nutrient cycling, or the conservation of forest biodiversity, or the food webs that sustain birds and salamanders and small mammals, then you should care about fungus gnats. “And why” you may also ask “should I care about particular species of fungus gnats and the names that taxonomists give them?” Well, because different species live in different places and are active at different times of the year and play different ecological roles. And some are rare and some are not. And some have fascinating and unusual sexual behavior and some do not. And so, depending on the scientific questions you are asking, it may be very useful for you to know which particular species you are dealing with. And the names that taxonomists attach to those species are the entry point into the big filing system of Life that allows you to access all that information. The taxonomists say “You’re welcome”.

Just another new species. Admit it – this is an awesome fly! (from Borkent and Wheeler, 2012)

Taxonomy has also been high on the agenda because I spent a lot of time at conferences recently talking to colleagues who do taxonomy. I tend to interact with ecologist colleagues a little more frequently when I’m at McGill, so when I do get the opportunity to sit and talk species and phylogenies and projects with other taxonomists, it can’t help but get me excited.

Finally, when I came back from my last conference, there was a little gift waiting for me – a drawer of brand new flies that one of our keen undergraduate students collected last summer halfway around the world, on the island of Mauritius. I’ve never been to Mauritius, and I’m not sure I ever will go, but I feel now like I have a little piece of it sitting on my desk. There are very few species of Chloropidae (my primary fly family of interest) recorded in the literature from Mauritius, or even nearby islands, so I was intrigued to see what we had. I was delighted to see that Boris had collected at least 17 chloropid species on the island, including some genera apparently never before recorded from anywhere even close to the island. I set aside a chunk of time at the end of every day this week to work my way through the material. It was great fun delving into the obscure old literature from a part of the world I haven’t done much research on. Some of the flies were familiar species that are widely distributed around the tropics — I recognized these right away. But some were things that I’d never seen before, new genera for our collection, species that are only briefly described in the literature, and some that appear to be brand new. Great fun and great new discoveries. And all because a very keen and motivated undergraduate student was excited to contribute to our collection and gain some valuable field experience.

Taxonomy is relevant. I get very weary of having to apologize for doing taxonomy. Taxonomy is the filing system of biodiversity, and any inventory as big as Life on Earth that does not have a filing system is nothing more than a chaotic pile. Evolution and ecology without taxonomy is the messiest desk you will ever, ever see. Good taxonomy, like good natural history (another frequently maligned component of science) builds an essential foundation upon which we can organize biodiversity, construct hypotheses, frame directed research questions, theories, and so on. Without the knowledge of who things are and what they do, theory wafts around in a vacuum.

Taxonomy is science. What is science anyway? There are lots of definitions, some of which are general and some of which are ridiculously specific. If “science” is the attempt to describe the world, then taxonomy is science. If “science” is the search for patterns in nature, then taxonomy is science. If “science” is the accumulation and interpretation of data that builds a foundation for hypotheses, then taxonomy is, most assuredly, science. If, on the other hand, “science” is the deductive testing of hypotheses in support of theory, then I think your definition of science is sterile, restrictive, tedious and I want no part of it. But that’s just my opinion.

Taxonomy is “sexy”. Just as I define “science” broadly for the purposes of this post, I do the same with “sexy”. I’m not just talking about physical arousal (with or without the express intent to procreate), I’m talking about the broader, media-driven view of “sexy” – appealing, intriguing, mentally stimulating. Taxonomy is exploration. Taxonomy is discovery. Taxonomy is giving an identity to a living thing that nobody has ever noticed before. Taxonomy is the branch of science that can take a pop star or politician whose fame is fleeting and attach their name to a new species. Doing so means that that person’s name will live on in the literature forever (even though, as the years go by, the original inspiration for the name usually becomes but a distant memory). If you look at it this way, we taxonomists are the scientists who deal in immortality.

The discovery of bizarre new species in exotic places (or right under our noses!) still excites the media. So much so that it creates the impression that discovering a new species is some sort of rare event that sends us taxonomists rushing for the champagne (wrong!) People love “discovery”. The media loves “discovery”. They paint us as explorers. Being an explorer might be geeky but it’s also sexy.

About terry wheeler

professor, museum director, entomologist, ecologist, naturalist
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11 Responses to Taxonomy: sexy and we know it

  1. Patricia Mullins says:

    EXCELLENT post! This should get everyone…EVERYONE… excited about taxonomy!!!!!!! Thanks!!!!!

  2. Thanks, Patricia. Here’s hoping! I think one of our biggest challenges is that stereotypical image of “taxonomists” as dusty old men in dusty old museums looking at dusty old dead things. That stereotype is almost exactly, perfectly, WRONG.

  3. Wonderful post! Those of us that straddle the scientific realms of ecology and taxonomy get very excited about new species being described and catalogued, mostly because without names and placement into an orderly system, they can be used, learned from or contribute to our understanding of the living world. I work with Neotropical Chironomidae, one of the most poorly known groups of aquatic insects in the tropics. With over 1,000 undescribed species in our Costa Rican collection, our work is cut out for us. We need taxonomists and systematists as much as libraries need librarians and authors. Your words will be shared broadly. Thanks!

    • Thanks Carlos, and I agree completely. I think our work is cut out for us with almost all of the Costa Rican Diptera, but families such as chironomids are a great example of how far we still have to go in understanding the biodiversity of even small areas.

  4. Michael Jefferies says:

    I recall a remark made to me during a training session on public speaking many years ago; Never apologise!

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