Taxonomist envy and the importance of names

Imagine: seeking, finding, watching, sampling, measuring, comparing, analyzing, imaging and… naming.

These goodies are all part of taxonomy. As Wikipedia defines it, taxonomy “is the science of defining groups of biological organisms on the basis of shared characteristics and giving names to those groups.”

Taxonomists are the true explorers at the foundation of biodiversity science: they are to be appreciated, and I’m envious of their discoveries.

I’ve always been a collector and sorter and feel some kinship towards taxonomists: although when I was young I engaged more in the process of categorizing ‘non-living’ things such as sticks, stamps, coins or rocks. But there were comparisons of shared characteristics: some rocks were pink, with lightening-strikes of white crystal; some rocks were angular and sharp, some were smooth, shaped by time and oceans. Perhaps it’s not surprising that during my PhD I thoroughly enjoyed sorting and identifying almost 30,000 spiders from Canada’s boreal forest. It brought back good memories from my childhood: it felt right.

It matters that this is Arctosa hirtipes instead of "Wolf spider species X"

It matters that this is Alopecosa hirtipes instead of “Wolf spider species X”

I think my experiences are shared with some of my ecology colleagues, especially those who also call themselves ornithologists, mammalogists, or entomologists: many of us like ‘species’, and their names. We think about interesting species in our study systems, and think about similarities and differences, about a place’s history with its species, and the relationship to other species or spaces nearby, upstream of downstream.

But I, like most of my ecology colleagues, are not taxonomists. Instead we exploit and repurpose the good work done by taxonomists (and often not citing their work – oops!). For a concrete example from my own experience: without the taxonomic expertise of great Canadian arachnologists such as Charles Dondale, and colleagues, who described species and then wrote accessible taxonomic keys, my work would be of much lower value. The keys allowed me to get names on things. These names increase the value of the work tremendously.

Despite being retired for many years, Charles Dondale still has an office at the Canadian National Collection of Insects

Despite being retired for many years, Charles Dondale still has an office at the Canadian National Collection of Insects

Let’s look closely at this value: Surely it would be possible have the same main results from my ecological work without having the actual species names? Surely I could have called everything by my own pretend name – a secret code that I could develop – a series of ‘morphospecies’. And, these days, I could have a long code to represent a barcode. Isn’t that enough? In truth, the broad community patterns that I sometimes publish about don’t depend on the names. Rather, these community patterns depend on recognition of different types of things, but the names themselves don’t drive the patterns.

While it’s true that names are only one part of my ecological research, they are a very important part. They provide an important common ground for understanding our biodiversity – they allow us to compare apples to apples in all the right ways. The names are a doorway into a rich history, a life story that perhaps goes back hundreds of years in the literature. It means more to know that Alopecosa hirtipes is running around the Arctic tundra than it does to know it is ‘Wolf spider species X’.

But the name comes at a cost: it means that someone spent their time searching, watching, measuring and comparing; looking at shared characteristics, and putting the species in an evolutionary framework, and perhaps producing a valuable taxonomic key so free-loading ecologists like me can stick a name on ‘Wolf spider species X’. The cost is worth it: taxonomists are as valuable to science as are ecologists, molecular biologists, or physicists.

A glimpse at the grad students hard at work, using microscopes, in my lab. As ecologists, we need taxonomists.

A glimpse at the grad students hard at work, using microscopes, in my lab. As ecologists, we need taxonomists.

Taxonomy is a science that is relevant and important, and despite increased availability of molecular tools, names still matter. We need taxonomists to be our quality control, and bring sense and order to strings of code in GenBank, and help us compare and connect across systems, or among similar habitats. We need the full package figured out for a species: specimens, meta-data, barcodes and names. After that, we need to go further and assess evolutionary history and test hypotheses about relationships among species.

Today is Taxonomist Appreciation Day, but let’s make sure it’s more than one day. Let’s make it something we think about every day: every time we see a Corvus corax fly by, or see a Chelifer cancroides on the wall of our bathroom, let’s remember that every name has a story, and the narrative is brought to life because of taxonomists.

Advertisements

One thought on “Taxonomist envy and the importance of names

  1. Pingback: Ephemeral art | Arthropod Ecology

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s