Systematics courses for undergraduates

Rod Seppelt rod_sep at ANTDIV.GOV.AU
Thu Nov 6 07:40:15 CST 1997

Bill Shear wrote:

>I would be interested in reading the experiences of anyone who has taught a
>course in systematic biology to undergraduates, or who knows of web pages
>for such courses (even graduate courses).
The most successful Systematics course I undertook was a 3rd year
undergraduate course in Taxonomy and Biogeography taught as part my final
year Zoology major at the University of Adelaide in South Australia.  It
was much better than any of the Botanical Taxonomy courses given to me.

The course was given by Derek Duckhouse (particular interest - Psychodid
flies) and involved lectures by him and guest lecturers, tutorial
discussion groups, essay assignments, and practical classes.  There was no
theory examination.
We had to complete a practical project as well.  Derek put a lot of time
into thinking up about 24 (number of students) taxonomic-related projects.
I remember a few - Collembola, Aphids (mine, because i didn't know what
Collembola were at that stage), intertidal snails (I think a new taxon was
discovered as a result), Psychodids in leaf litter.  Can't remember others.
He provided a few basic literature sources for each project and we had a
semester to complete the work (design and execution of the project and
One guest lecturer spoke about taxonomic theory, utilising his own
particular interest in nematodes, but his practical was based on us sorting
out and writing a key to identify a whole suite of "childs" cat figures
(circle for head, some whiskers, nose, eyes, ears, bigger circle for body,
etc).  That little exercise alone took a whole afternoon!  Another
brilliant practical exercise involved a bundle of frogs (and a toad for a
ring-in).  There were 20 animals in the tray (each group of 3 had a tray).
First exercise - 2 minutes to come up with the first dichotomy in a key -
the smart ones recognised toads v. frogs.  After a whole afternoon we were
left with just two animals - and the other tricky bit was that these were a
male and female of the same species.
We also worked with the successional appearance of Psychodids from
rainforest litter and also had to dissect, clear, stain and mount the flies
with their taxonomically important bits displayed.
It was a really interesting course, helped by a lecturer with a lot of
field experience and enthusiasm for a potentially deadly subject, a
brilliant series of projects and practicals, a great set of guest lecturers
(their punishment being that they had to conduct a practical class as well
as lecture), interesting lectures (spread over taxonomy and, mainly,
biogeography), and stimulating tutorial discussion and assignment themes.

One of the other useful practical classes we started with in Botany at
University of Melbourne was to use a whole bunch of nails, screws, nuts,
bolts and let the class sort them into groups and prepare a key to
differentiate them.  The same also used to be done with a variety of

The biodiversity side of it is easy, related to habitat ecology.  The
taxonomy side becomes relevant when you emphasise the importance of being
able to clearly identify different things - many of which may look similar.

The need for correct identification can be emphasised by the importance of
knowing if this or that potentially edible fungus is, in fact edible.

Key spotting characters are, I am sure, just as relevant to zoology as they
are to botany.

There are lots of examples that I am sure other people can furnish.

As for text books.  No, I cannot think of anything that is
"all-encompasing" in Botany.  I can't speak now for Zoology, but I guess
the same may be true.

Why not show some daring and initiative and do away with a text.  Refer to
published papers and make it up as you go along.
Try it, i reckon your students may appreciate the methodology and the
outcome a whole lot more.

Rod Seppelt

Dr. Rodney D. Seppelt
Principal Research Scientist
Australian Antarctic Division
Channel Highway
Kingston 7050, Tasmania, Australia

phone:  International:  +61 (03) 62 323 438
        FAX          :  +61 (03) 62 323 351
        Alternate FAX:  +61 (03) 62 323 449

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