Tuesday, 16 January 2007

Taxonomy, and Endangered Taxonomists

I grew up in an era when natural history museums were populated with taxonomists, and the staff dealing with public galleries and exhibitions were a real minority. A situation now largely reversed. And at that time taxonomy was an essential part of botany and zoology 'A' level in schools, and later at university. Now hardly any British universities teach even the most rudimentary taxonomy. There has also been a decline in natural history in the form it used to exist -- primary schools now rarely have a nature table, and there are fewer natural history societies catering for the taxonomically minded -- partly because sticking pins in insects and squashing plants is not as popular as it once was.

However, the loss of taxonomists is becoming serious -- they are a vital link in the biodiversity chain. Without competent experts to identify wildlife how do we monitor its decline? How do we identify new species? While DNA and other advanced technological solutions will help, I can't help feeling that the oldfashioned naturalist -still has a major role to play. Afterall, they are often the ones who are passionate about an obscure group of arachnids or mosses. Lab-based taxonomy can never inspire that sort of enthusiasm, which is often so vital for conservation.

This year sees the tercentenary of the birth of Carl von Linné (more usually known as Linnaeus), the founding father of modern biological nomenclature. It is difficult now to realise how important the stabilisation of nomenclature was -- taxonomy and systematics both require as a prequisite stable nomencalture, and almost all other aspects of biological science, to a greater or lessser degree depend on it. Although Linnaeus did not nominate types for his species in the way modern scientists do, it is his collections, housed in a bomb-proof vault that provide the base-line collection for all museums throughout the world. If this is all new to you, have a look at http://www.linnean.org/

I have been a Fellow of the Linn.Soc. for over 35 years, and it is the hope of most Fellows that 2007 will see a resurgence of interest in classical taxomomy, as well as advanced taxonomy -- both have their place. And both are an integral part of the efforts to conserve biodiversity for the future. While the tercentenary will be looking back to the birth of Linnaeus, I and many other Fellows of the Linnean Society will be looking forward to see what we can save of the world's biodiversity.

For several years now, I have been advocating the use of taxonomy for helping fund conservation -- naming species after persons or institutions that have made significant contributions to conserving a species -- for instance by funding the purchase of a nature reserve. While there are plenty of precedents for this, it is truly amazing how this concept raises storms of protest, particularly from non-taxonomists. In many other fora I have argued the case and described the precedents, but to me it is such an obvious benefit, that I am still surprised when objections are raised. The main problem is that generally it is rather small and seemingly insignificant forms of life that are being described, and not many people are too keen on having a new species of snail or moss named after them, even if they have given £20,000 to save a huge area of habitat where it and other species are found. But birds and orchids would be a differnt matter.

In the year of the Linnean Tercentenary, it will be an interesting debate, and views are welcome from scientists, taxonomists and anyone else.

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