March 19th is Taxonomist Appreciation Day. I don’t think any government has made official pronouncements on that. That’s OK, we’ve got something better — social media. Taxonomist Appreciation Day was the brainchild of Terry McGlynn, an ecologist who understands the critical role that good taxonomy plays in, for example, understanding the ecology of tropical ants. In fact, taxonomy matters in many ways. The problem is that a lot of people, both inside and outside biology, don’t always realize how fundamental taxonomy is to the rest of biology.
Taxonomist Appreciation Day is a chance for people who don’t necessarily interact with taxonomists on a daily basis to say “hey, thanks”. But what are people thanking taxonomists for? What do taxonomists DO?
We discover new species and give them names. When we do that, we’re describing a little tiny piece of the diversity of life on earth, and taking a tiny step closer to understanding the planet.
We build the classifications that are the filing system to organize the diversity of life on earth. That filing system of genera and families and orders and the rest is the big information retrieval system that connects scientists and non-scientists to all the information about species.
We construct keys and field guides and other identification tools to allow non-taxonomists to identify species. These identification tools are the most direct way that we translate and transmit taxonomic knowledge to non-specialists. So, when you identify species using a key or a molecular library, although you’re not actually doing taxonomy, you’re using tools created by taxonomists (you’re welcome. It was our pleasure). And when those keys are really good and clear and smooth, it’s sometimes easy to forget the enormous amount of training, experience and hard work that went into producing that key.
We reconstruct phylogenetic relationships of species and higher taxa to produce hypotheses about shared evolutionary history. And those patterns of relationships form the basis for all sorts of other hypotheses in evolution and ecology. That’s because everything about species evolves. When we build a phylogenetic tree based on characteristics of the species, we’re building a picture of history, not just the history of those characters, but of their ecology, species associations, behavior, physiology, geographic distribution and other traits as well. That’s a powerful framework for interpreting patterns.
We build, organize and maintain the collections in natural history museums. We maintain the irreplaceable libraries of life, the place you can go to verify the identity of species, or to access other information about those specimens. We make the enormous resources represented by specimens available and accessible to other researchers.
That’s what taxonomists do. That’s why our work matters.
So, when we say “Thanks” to a taxonomist, it can be for any of a number of things:
“Thanks for putting a name on that new species so I can Google it”
“Thanks for publishing some photos and drawings so I know what that species looks like”
“Thanks for writing a decent key so I can identify these species from my research project”
“Thanks for identifying those mystery specimens that didn’t key out at all”
“Thanks for building that phylogenetic tree, so I know what this species is related to, and so I can plug in these functional traits and get some predictive power”
“Thanks for those natural history observations about habitat, behavior and food that you put in your taxonomic paper”
“Thanks for putting those specimens you collected in the museum. I’ll be able to [measure them/extract their DNA/look for chemical signatures/check their geographic range] soon for this other thing I’m working on”
Taxonomy is not “done”. There are millions of species still to describe and many more still to slot into their place on the tree of life. And not just in the wild places of the tropics. Here, in our back yards, in our parks, in our cities.
Taxonomy is not “old-fashioned”. Our tools and techniques evolve just as quickly as the tools of physics and medicine and molecular biology (heck, they’re some of the same tools), and allow us to explore new levels of complexity in the organisms we study. Some of our methods are timeless, and some are at the cutting edge of science. They all work. Really well.
Taxonomy is not the occasional new species of bug named after a celebrity. For every celebrity species name that makes a splash in the media, hundreds more appear in the primary scientific literature. Those names, derived from characteristics of the species, or the place they live, or their habits, or the person who collected the specimen, may not be as entertaining, but they’re just as meaningful and the species are just as important. Taxonomists describe thousands of species every year. We’re busy.
Taxonomy is not an isolated pursuit. At least it shouldn’t be. Given the connections between taxonomy and the rest of biology, we have tons of opportunities to collaborate, to interact, to advise, to contribute.
I became a taxonomist because of my interactions with some great professors in my undergrad courses who did taxonomy; people like Dave Larson, who liked water beetles, and Bill Threlfall, who worked on parasites (and birds). I did both my graduate degrees in taxonomy: a M.Sc. with Mary Beverley-Burton, who taught me a lot about parasitic flatworms; and a PhD with Steve Marshall, whose infectious excitement about flies made me excited about flies. A couple of decades on, I work with a great group of undergrad and grad students doing taxonomy in the lab now. They help keep me excited about flies. About discovery. About the little thrill of being the first person to put a name on another tiny twig on the big tree of life.