taxonomic expertise and molecular needs

James B. Whitfield jwhitfie at COMP.UARK.EDU
Fri Oct 25 10:21:48 CDT 1996

Dear Taxacomers,
        I haven't been in on the whole thread about the decline in support
for taxonomic expertise.  For the most part I'm in complete agreement with
the general drift of comments and the importance of reversing the trend
away from valuing descriptive taxonomy.
        Most of what I do myself is descriptive taxonomy (of braconid
wasps, a group with MUCH yet to be done) and field biology.  About a third
of my work is molecular systematics - I and the people in the lab I share
with Sydney Cameron sequence DNA for phylogeny.  Thus I happen to work in
one area that is losing in resources, and one that is gaining.
        These two areas, as has been pointed out by others in this
discussion, are vitally linked.  As molecular systematics moves (as it is
already doing) from the realm of testing "the big evolutionary questions"
to the more taxonomically challenging areas of providing phylogenetic input
into classifications of less well-studied groups, it seems to me that the
best approach is NOT what I'm having to do (one person or lab tries to do
both) but to forge partnerships between morphology/ecology-based
taxonomists and molecular systematics labs, thus providing BOTH inputs to
the same project - and getting grant funding to BOTH sources of data.  We
need to start formalizing in grant proposals (yes, including the molecular
ones) the value of taxonomic expertise.
This will provide taxonomic rigor for the molecular systematics field
(better taxon representation, sounder voiucher policies, etc.) AND help
provide funding for the valuable taxonomic expertise that underlies all
comparative biology.
        I realize this is only a small piece of the problem, but if
taxonomists can start getting molecular systematists AND funding agencies
to formally recognize their value and put money in, we're at least
somewhere.  Maybe eventually institutions will realize that any
phylogeny/evolution research team MUST have an associated taxonomist, and
positions might appear again.  Maybe this is too optimistic, but you have
to start somewhere.
                                                        Cheers, Jim

J. B. Whitfield
Department of Entomology
University of Arkansas
Fayetteville, AR 72701
(501)575-2482 FAX -2452
jwhitfie at

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