I sometimes see this statement in taxonomic papers that describe a new species:
Natural History: Unknown
Think about this… specimens have been collected, somewhere, sometime. Perhaps these specimens sat in an Entomology museum for decades until a MSc student took them out and started a revision. Perhaps the specimen was recently sorted from a bulk malaise trap sample from the Amazon basin, and sent to a taxonomic expert for identification. S/he recognized it was something different and later, while doing a taxonomic revision, included it, measured it, did a line drawing, extracted some DNA, wrote a description, gave it a name. However, when writing what is known about its natural history and biology had to write “unknown“. (by the way, discussions about defining natural history can be found here and here).
I recognize why nothing is known, but when trying to get some sense of why a particular species might be found in a particular habitat, having no information about natural history and biology can be frustrating. This is especially true for ecologists, whose research might benefit immensely from ANY natural history information. In my own work, after I key out a species of wolf spider, for example, I immediately flip to the description, and scan down to the notes about the biology of the species – these notes can confirm details about the species (hey look, I found it under rocks on a shoreline, and that is where it is reported, also!; or, indeed, it makes sense that I found that egg sac in late summer – that species is known to mate in mid-summer).
Natural history is important, as is so elegantly stated in many papers (e.g., see Greene’s 2005 paper) and the impending extinction of natural history was written about over 10 years ago by Wilcove & Eisner. The world needs natural history information, and although I recognize that having a name is clearly very important, it is also essential to have some natural history information. Such information can lead to additional research on the species, or allow others to document the species in new locations around the globe. Having some information will help future graduate students figure out when during the growing season they should find specimens, and perhaps what host plants they should look on.
So, I ask these questions, and I look forward to responses, especially from taxonomists:
Should taxonomists wait to describe a species until there are some details known about its natural history? (this will, of course, take more specimens and more time…)
Under what conditions is it acceptable to state “Natural History: unknown”?
Caveats: I am coming from this question as an ecologist with an appreciation for taxonomy, but not as someone trained in taxonomy. I am, therefore, biased in my views. I also recognize that in many cases, taxonomists only have one specimen and a label to work with, and data on the label itself may be lacking, hence the need to state “natural history: unknown”. My questions are meant to be more general, and I am hoping to gain insights into 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.
Greene, H.W. (2005). Organisms in nature as a central focus for biology Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 20 (1), 23-27 DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2004.11.005
Wilcove, D. and Eisner, T. (2000) The impending extinction of natural history. Chron. Higher Ed. Sept. 15, B24. Available here.