Taxonomy with or without natural history?

My colleague Chris Buddle has asked an interesting and important question about taxonomic descriptions and natural history data. Specifically: Should taxonomists wait to describe a species until there are some details known about its natural history? Chris and I both cross the line between taxonomy and ecology frequently in our research and teaching, so I suppose these links between taxonomy and natural history are on our minds a lot.

My short answer to Chris’s question is: No.

Here’s my long answer, from my (mostly) taxonomist’s perspective:

Big questions, small steps

Most new species of arthropods and other small organisms are recognized from specimens already preserved in natural history collections, not collected as part of focused hunting expeditions (Another nature documentary myth deflated. Sorry). This means that a taxonomist will often describe a new species based on a few dead specimens, and a very small label with minimal data. Here’s an example of the challenge that can create: I have a specimen of a (likely) new species of fly sitting by my microscope. The label reads: “CAN:YT: Dempster Hwy nr North Fork Pass 64.57942° -136.28212°, 1200m, Repl. 3 wet, sweep,, NBP field party”. And because I was the NBP field party member who did the sweep transects that day I have a little more detailed memory about the vegetation and topography along that transect. But I don’t know where along that transect I got that specimen. In a large scale study, with lots of field sites and sample grids and lots of data to collect in a very short time we simply do not have the ability to note each of those specimens when they’re alive and watch what they’re doing. It would be great fun to do so, but neither I, nor any of the students, would get enough data to finish any of our projects. This is the trade-off, especially when we’re working on small and obscure arthropods as part of a big and ambitious project.

I’ll almost certainly describe that new species because I think it’s an interesting little fly in a distinctive genus in a part of the world where I would not have expected to find it. And I know from the label where and when I collected it. But that’s hardly significant “natural history information”. I don’t know where along that gentle slope above a tundra pond I got that fly as I swept. The sedge hummocks? beside the Dryas? under the little shrub? out of mid-air? And I certainly don’t know what it eats, or where its larvae develop, or its preferred microhabitat, or its role in food webs. We may never know that. I can make a prediction based on what I do know about its related species, but even there I have some nagging questions. But if I describe this species and give it a name and mark a place for it in the Great Filing Cabinet of Life, it makes it easier for somebody with an affinity for small flies and some time to kill to know that there’s a neat little question waiting to be tackled the next time they venture up the Dempster Highway. If this fly has a name, and is placed in a classification, then at least we know that its natural history is a “known unknown” (it’s sublimely comforting to know that a silly catchphrase will likely be Donald Rumsfeld’s only lasting legacy to the world).

The way we collect

One of the biggest changes in recent decades in the way we accumulate biodiversity data about arthropods is the widespread adoption of high-yield, replicated, passive collecting methods such as Malaise traps, canopy fogging and large pan trap grids. This brings in a lot of new species and a lot of material in quantities suitable for rigorous statistical analyses. The downside is that such methods have the ability to separate the collector from the live specimen in a way that was quite uncommon a century ago. In most cases we don’t see the specimens until they’re already dead and preserved. Sometimes the taxonomic expert who recognizes the species wasn’t even in the field where the material was collected. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; it’s just a thing. But it means that natural history observations about living specimens don’t always make it into somebody’s field notebook.

I’m sometimes envious of colleagues who hand-collect their specimens and make notes on them as they go, and rear them out individually to associate larvae and substrates and adults. But on the other hand, oh boy do I ever have a mountain of data!

One impediment is enough

Much has been written about the “taxonomic impediment” — the realization that there are not enough active taxonomists, and not enough resources, to describe earth’s biodiversity anywhere near soon enough, at the rate we’re going. Just here in the cabinets in my lab I have at least 200 undescribed species of small flies that I already know are new species. How many of them do I have reasonable natural history information for, beyond simply where and when they were collected? About a half-dozen. Now, I feel I have a responsibility to the scientific community to execute my duty as a duly-apprenticed, trained and employed taxonomist to get some names on those species, and in doing so, make that taxonomic knowledge about those species available for other researchers who may or may not be taxonomists. But if I only describe the species for which I have decent natural history data, I will likely describe 6 or 8 species in the next few years and let the rest sit undescribed in the cabinets. If I do that, then I will, at the end of my career, consider myself a pretty poor taxonomist. I suppose this is the cost of specializing on a group of small, cryptic, poorly-known flies, whose ecological diversity is so high that it’s hard to even predict the habits of unknown species — natural history data is sometimes a luxury.

A losing battle?

Chris asks “whether seeking additional natural history information about species (when it is described) is a losing battle… and whether this task should be in the hands of the individuals who describe species.”

I think that no battle in which our goal is greater taxonomic resolution and more complete natural history knowledge is a losing battle. If it is, I’ll go down swinging. Granted, it’s not an easy battle and it’s going to be a long one and I think we have to be content with little gains of a few inches here and there rather than total victory. We can certainly seek additional natural history information about species, and there’s little I enjoy more on a field trip than spending time just watching insects live their lives and documenting that. But in this battle, I’m a taxonomic specialist, and I will often have to choose my targets. So I’ll charge into the lines of undescribed species and worry about cleaning up the rest later.

I certainly don’t think the task of documenting the natural history of new species should rest solely in the hands of the people who describe the species (although some of the most superb naturalists I know are taxonomists). If, when I describe a species, I have that information, then I’ll put some natural history notes into the paper (but that’s rare). I won’t likely have accumulated all that knowledge myself. The best example I can think of to illustrate the power of collaboration on documenting natural history of new species is my own experience with BugGuide, where I’ve contributed taxonomic expertise to put names on a few species of flies for which other contributors (mostly non-scientists, and not taxonomists) have provided fantastic natural history data. And I know that at least a couple of those species are as yet undescribed. The more collaborations we have like these, the better.

The elephant in the room

The critical topic we haven’t addressed is: where and how can we publish these critically important natural history observations so they are accessible?

That’s probably a rant for another post.


About terry wheeler

professor, museum director, entomologist, ecologist, naturalist
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8 Responses to Taxonomy with or without natural history?

  1. Chris Buddle says:

    Great post Terry, and well thought-out response to my questions about taxonomy and natural history. A lot of this stems from my frustration when I could REALLY use any natural history information in ecological work, and it is just not available for the reasons you outline above. I think your last point is really key – we must have an appropriate outlet in which to publish and document additional natural history notes about species after the original descriptions. These sorts of notes don’t fit into the format of most current journals, unfortunately. Anyway, thanks for writing this. It’s helping clarify things. With clarity will hopefully come ideas about how we move forward.

  2. Neal Evenhuis says:

    Being able to document short notes on behavior or other life history observations in journals is certainly a dilemma. I’m researching Osten Sacken’s life (for a new expanded bio of him) and he indicates early on that there is simply little known of Diptera life-histories. So he spent the American years cataloging everything and then when retired in Heidelberg, started publishing life history notes (mainly in Ent. Mon. Mag., which had a tradition of those notes in the 1800s) along with his classification papers. His lament about the paucity of information hasn’t changed much. But now we lack the opportunity to publish those little notes … for various reasons (I suppose the major one is anecdotal information is not deemed as important as rigorous experimental data that can be replicated). When I was a grad student I was able to arrange my class and TA schedule for Tuesdays and Thursdays which allowed me to spend Friday through Monday in the Mojave desert camping out and watching Bombylius and other bee flies do their thing. I have literally stacks of observational notes that will not pass muster in a peer-reviewed journal because they are simply “anecdotal” observations. So, no one will know things like …. when there are more than one Bombylius species in a good patch of flowers, males of different Bombylius species will partition themselves by hovering over territories at different heights above the ground: B. duncani — on the ground or just above it for short periods; B. cinerivus at about 3 feet; B. diegoensis at about 6 feet; and B. mojavensis at about 15-20 feet. Also, no one will ever know that female Aphoebantus differ from most bee flies that hover when ovipositing by instead digging a small trench in fine sand under Ceanothus with the tip of her abdomen and then laying a clutch of 3-4 eggs and covering them with fine sand. Pity. I guess I’ll never be able to relate those facts in writing ….

    • Neal, that’s EXACTLY what bugs us about the roadblocks to publishing basic observational data (and the lack of credit for doing so). Your Mojave notes are a great example of we really need more outlets in the vein of Ent. Mon. Mag. for documenting natural history observations, new records, new associations, etc. Sure, some of those little half-page notes may not be rigorous or replicated, but as basic information about species they are gold. And field notes on Bombylius flying height may not simply be isolated behavioral observations; they may be a starting point for a study on species coexistence, for example. Getting natural history data back into the literature, and back into respectability, will be a challenge, certainly. Maybe it will take a couple of editorial boards who are not preoccupied with Impact, along with some reviewers who understand that basic empirical observations can have great added value. The alternative is that thousands of unpublished observations and data points will remain locked away in the heads and field notebooks of good field people. And that would be a shame.

  3. Larger journals may frown upon so-called “notes” papers – collections of more anecdotal natural history notes on a variety of species within a larger taxon, and the effect on their all important impact factor. But smaller, more specialty journals (like Pan-Pac. Entomol. – please excuse the plug – and Coleopt. Bull.) are more than happy to publish these papers. As a “Pro-Am” rather than professional taxonomist, I may have less ability to conduct hard-core alpha- and beta-taxonomic studies on a large scale, but I still have the opportunity to interpret ample field observations through the eyes of a practised taxonomist. This has allowed me to make a ‘career’ out of bio-notes and natural history papers that present new natural history knowledge in my taxa of interest to a largely taxonomic audience. Of course, as professionals you have career implications to consider when deciding whether to put effort into papers published in lower-impact journals and how best to balance that with the ‘duty’ to make this information available (as a Pro-Am I don’t really have to worry about that). Still, the opportunities are there, and perhaps leveraged collaborations between Professionals and Pro-Ams provides the best opportunity for getting natural history information published.

    • Excellent point, Ted. There certainly are journals out there more receptive to publishing natural history notes, and these are the source of much great data. And I’m happy to see them thriving. The challenges lie in:

      1. Appropriate credit for publishing such work when it comes time to add up our scores in “The Game”. I’ll confess I’m torn (hypocritical?) myself. I aim to publish in journals that have higher visibility (whether that comes in the form of an available on-line edition with DOI, tracking in e.g. Web of Science, or impact factor), yet at the same time it annoys me when I see people reviewing grant applications or job CV’s downgrade somebody solely on the basis of the average impact factor of journals in which they tend to publish (“nothing with an impact factor over 1.0! Good God!) (parenthetically, one of my most-cited Diptera papers to date is a set of natural history observations published in a journal with an Impact Factor less than 0.5. Insert audible gasp);
      2. Visibility and accessibility of those published natural history observations (see above comments re: online versions and tracking of publications by widely used databases);
      3. Tracking the connections between the species’ identity and the natural history observations over time.

  4. Pingback: Natural history known, unknown, and assumed: a fly tale | Lyman Entomological Museum

  5. Hinrich Kaiser says:

    I would like to leave a reply in two parts, one related to the issue of describing a new species without natural history data, the other related to the issue of short natural history notes.

    In the first case, I agree with Terry, that the short answer must be no. In my recent work on the herpetofauna of Timor-Leste, it has become necessary to scour museums for holotypes and other comparative material, and we have uncovered an even dozen undescribed species, some in jars that have not been opened for over a hundred years. As a consequence, there is little or nothing known about their natural history. But with a reasonable type locality and a distinct morphology, it is possible to at give the new taxon a name and a proper description. In many cases, those populations are still out there, but nobody has been back since the initial visit!

    Regarding the issue of short notes, I understand this dilemma. In herpetology, we have two major outlets and several minor ones where short contributions can be published with a minimum of fuss, as long as the taxon’s identity can be independently confirmed. This may require that photographic vouchers be deposited in a collection, and that a reviewer can access the voucher. The article, however short it may be, is peer-reviewed and indexed, so that searches are possible. Ideally, this allows not only for a quick determination whether similar natural history date have been reported, it also assists in a literature survey, given that many observations are made in this short format.

    Of course, in principle, the answers to both of these questions ought to be contrary to what I just wrote. It would be much better to publish species descriptions with natural history data, and it would be ideal if all kinds of data could be gathered before publication so that everything is in one place. That, unfortunately, is not practical.

    • Thanks for your comment, Hinrich. In a perfect world, we would have all this information and make it available at the same time in the same place (and we would get credit and accolades and more funding for doing so). But in the real world, at least putting a name on a species puts it onto the radar screen of people who might then be fortunate enough to go and accumulate great natural history data. And yes, those “lesser” journals and other forms of disseminating natural history data play a critical role in building our knowledge of organisms and their interactions. We, as a community, have a responsibility to make sure they continue to do so, hopefully with ever-increasing support.

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