Natural History: unknown.

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).

An unknown weevil with unknown natural history.

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.


13 thoughts on “Natural History: unknown.

  1. Good questions, and well worth discussing. I think my full response might take a whole separate blog post on its own (memo to self), but here’s my quick take on it, with my taxonomist hat on, rather than my ecologist hat.

    Given how many species are described based only on museum specimens, and given that many old specimen labels are “minimalist”, and given that many specimens are collected using passive techniques, it’s just not possible to know the natural history of many of the species we describe. If we view taxonomy as the filing system of life, and names as the labels on those files, everything else about species (ecology, physiology, impact, interactions, relationships) is what goes IN those files. But I think the most critical step is building that filing system in the first place, regardless of how much, or how little, extra information we have available to stick in the file once it’s “labelled”. That can (and hopefully does!) come later.

    I think the real shame is that, despite how little we know about the natural history of many species, the great majority of journals make it almost impossible to publish basic natural history observations or data. And the few journals that are willing to do so are generally pooh-poohed as “inconsequential”.

  2. Thanks Terry for the excellent comments. Building the filing system is truly essential and important. My fear is that if we (all) don’t work hard to gather good, clear, correct NH data along the way, there will never be the an appropriate return to the filing system and we won’t fill it up. And you are right, journals must embrace the idea of publishing more NH observations…

  3. I think you might be asking the wrong questions here Chris. In most cases, a species natural history can be reconstructed from even the barest of species descriptions, even if it’s not explicitly stated under a separate heading, and it’s only our degree of knowledge/understanding that differs.

    All specimens that are used in a species description will have a minimum of 2 vital pieces of information attached to them: date of collection, and the location where it was collected. Right away, this tells us when and where a species can be found (important aspects of a species’ natural history, even if the location is not overly specific). But, most specimen labels include additional information, like habitat (‘in stream’, ‘under rock’; both narrowing in on how the species may live it’s life), host plant/animal associations, collecting method (specimens caught in a malaise trap were clearly migrating via flight/wind, while those collected in a pitfall trap were likely walking along the ground), or various other information that the person who collected the specimen took note of, all of which incrementally increase our basic knowledge of how a species survives.

    Next, when a taxonomist gives a species a name, they are not only providing a simple name that ensures consistent communication, they are also proposing hypotheses about it’s biology & natural history, even if it isn’t explicitly stated. For example, if I find and name a species “Culex fakeri”, we can assume that this species lives in aquatic environments as larvae, females likely feed on blood from some type of vertebrate prior to producing eggs, and that there’s a chance this species could serve as a vector for a zoonotic disease. In many cases I suspect, these are all traits which we subconsciously know yet don’t consider as we’re reading about a new species, instead focusing on the natural history details the author didn’t know and thus left out.

    Finally, the organism itself is an evolutionary product of its natural history, which means that we can hypothesize about how it lives just by looking at its morphology or its DNA. Does it have bright yellow & black stripes? Then it’s probably toxic, wants you to think it’s toxic, or both. Does it share a gene similar to one found in cold-tolerant insects? Then it potentially overwinters in an environment which is exposed to low temperatures.

    Are any of these assumptions hard facts that we can say with certainty are 100% accurate? Nope, but that’s what’s so awesome about biology; we can go back and test each and every one of these hypotheses as time, funding and circumstances allow, and gradually build up our natural history library. What’s even more exciting is that the more we learn about the ecology and natural history of a particular species, the greater we understand other species with which it shares a relative/niche/behaviour!

    So, with all of this information inherently within our grasp, perhaps a better question to ask would be “Why bother with a separate “Natural History” category at all?”

  4. I have to agree – if we wait until natural history is collected and available, most new species just wouldn’t get described. It may be a pain in the ass to face “natural history unknown”, but this is still way better than “we found some kind of spider but we don’t know what it is”. It’s all a question of incremental steps, that hopefully lead to a well-rounded understanding of at least some species. That said, I reckon as much information as possible needs to be recorded at the time a specimen is collected. Much as an ecologist may be disappointed by the lack of natural history information, a taxonomist will also be saddened by the discovery of a new species in a collection with a locality label that only says “Canada”.
    As an aside, it would be nice to see some professional respect for both natural history and taxonomy. As is noted above, ecologists rely heavily on taxonomy papers, but very often the taxonomist gets no credit, i.e. no citation acknowledging the name they put on the species, or the key they produced that the ecologist used. I suppose when the taxonomist provides natural history information this will merit a citation, which is one reason taxonomists should endeavour to “value add” to their research. As one who does both systematics and evolutionary biology, I freely admit that I find taxonomic literature pretty dry, and it’s the addition of natural history, biogeography etc to the mix that make the stuff interesting (to me at least).

  5. Morgan and Nik – thanks for taking the time to write thoughtful and thought-provoking ideas.

    Take home message so far (for me) – we must keep describing species, even if there is a lack of NH information -it’s a start (even if incremental)

    BUT must also strive to fill in gaps , and part of that is allowing for page space and publications that embrace NH information as KEY.

    Yes, more professional respect is needed. As an ecologist, I don’t cite enough taxonomic papers (i will try harder, Nik!).

    It’s an iterative process, I realize. And a bit of a difficult conversation as there isn’t an obvious way forward. However, regardless, finding a way to collect the most appropriate NH data at time of collection is key – this is certainly done, of course, but perhaps not always in a way that is useful to the full range of potentials users of those data.

    Morgan – taking out that Natural History category is a neat idea – part of my personal frustration is seeing it there, but seeing it empty! Instead, the inclusion of that NH data into the species description more explicitly, perhaps…

    Keep the comments coming! It’s a wonderful discussion.

  6. Indeed taxonomy is an incremental process, just as is ecology or indeed any science. But, how do you follow the increments in taxonomy? Maybe some good NH work has been produced since the original description. Where are you going to find it? Part of Chris’ frustration am sure is that there isn’t a “forward linking” mechanism from that original taxonomic description. If taxonomic papers were cited more widely, there would be a partial path to follow the links. Nik touched on this. But even if taxonomic papers were widely cited in ecology, the part that’s also missing is a forward-linking mechanism to follow the scientific name(s).

  7. Pingback: Taxonomy with or without natural history? | Lyman Entomological Museum

  8. David – good point – a forward linking mechanisms is a great idea – I think we can all agree that there is a gap in knowledge about natural history – and this gap shouldn’t slow down the process of describing species BUT there needs to be support and mechanisms for future efforts to add natural history information about speces.

    Terry’s (great) post, written in response to mine, touches on this also:

  9. FYI, I stole the notion of “forward linking” from CrossRef who now call their service, “Cited By”. Participating publishers send the literature cited sections for newly published papers to CrossRef when they stamp their DOIs. In turn, CrossRef exposes data for the “who has cited this paper” widgets you sometimes see at the margins of a paper’s landing page (i.e. the door to the paywall). This is incredibly useful on so many levels.

    An enterprising outfit should create a similar widget for the scientific names in a paper; a “who has used this scientific name”. And, because we’re good taxonomists, we’d construct this widget to properly alert the user to potential ambiguity in taxon concepts. In other words, the species in that original description could now be understood as either species X or species Y (e.g. if recently split). Not only would that give an ecologist the material to dig as much as they wanted, they’d also be alerted to the possibility that they may need to re-identify their vouchers.

  10. I really enjoyed reading the post, I agree with you that Natural History is very, important, not only for Ecology, also for Evolutionary/population genetics studies, for much of biology really. I don’t think a lack of knowledge should stop us from describing species. For some species, knowledge of natural history is hard to come by but a starting point is knowing we are dealing with single species. I have dealt with clusters of rotifer cryptic species thought to be one in the past and the chaos in the understanding of their ecology was monumental. Many past papers should be retracted as we have no idea what sp. they used as coexistance is likely and vouchers non existent. Sad really.

  11. Pingback: We need the Taxonomy Hulk « Arthropod Ecology

  12. I’ve described one species based on specimens found in a jar. They were properly labeled as to collector, field number, locality and date. The museum had copies of the collector’s field notes. Some notes on habitat, and life colors were included. I’m all for putting all the available information in the original description. My goal has been to make the fishes I study well enough known that others will want to study them and find out lots of things beyound my pay grade.

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

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