[Taxacom] Read... and believe...

Stephen Thorpe s.thorpe at auckland.ac.nz
Mon Sep 7 03:12:07 CDT 2009

Hey Bob, looking at it in a certain way, what you just said is the very reason why we have type specimens - everybody knows that the description is often useless, and so it is only by looking at the specimens the describer was talking about that we can know what s/he meant! At least, another taxonomist will find the types informative, a non-expert might just see something that looks a lot like lots of other things ...

From: taxacom-bounces at mailman.nhm.ku.edu [taxacom-bounces at mailman.nhm.ku.edu] On Behalf Of Bob Mesibov [mesibov at southcom.com.au]
Sent: Monday, 7 September 2009 8:05 p.m.
To: daniel.lahr at gmail.com
Subject: Re: [Taxacom] Read... and believe...

Dan Lahr wrote:

"Agreed, 100%, the subject is taboo."

No, it isn't taboo, it's just more complicated than you seem to think. I talked about one complication - progress in understanding characters - in my last post. In this one, I'd like to stress the importance of illustrations (drawings, photos, SEMs) in taxonomic publications.

We don't have the ability or the need to magically convert every aspect of every illustration we publish into text, whether as prose sentences or entries in a matrix. It has been best taxonomic practice for maybe the last two centuries to (a) illustrate what we describe, emphasising what we think are diagnostic characters and (b) rely on published illustrations for identifications and understanding characters.

I think I've said this before on Taxacom, but it emphasises my point: for many arthropods a single genitalia illustration is enough to define a species, and in many groups taxonomists will gloss over the text description and simply look at the genitalia. In the past I've redescribed 'inadequately' described millipedes which were - to my mind - more than adequately *circumscribed* by accurately illustrated genitalia. I'm doing that right now with a 1936-vintage species whose male genitalia were represented by line drawings. When I compare those drawings to the same structures in hundreds of more recently collected males, the match is damn near perfect.

Where is 'reproducibility' in this? OK, in two redescription papers I had side by side the original genitalia illustration and my own. Is that a 'reproducibility' instance? Those papers also had my SEMs. Should future workers do matching SEMs and use image analysis to compare the two?

I don't know how other Taxacomers feel about this, but I do taxonomy for humans, not machines, and in my specialty that means working very hard to produce good illustrations in the knowledge that the humans most likely to read my papers couldn't care less whether the text descriptions were machine-readable and machine-analysable.
Dr Robert Mesibov
Honorary Research Associate
Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, and
School of Zoology, University of Tasmania
Home contact: PO Box 101, Penguin, Tasmania, Australia 7316
(03) 64371195; 61 3 64371195
Website: http://www.qvmag.tas.gov.au/mesibov.html,.


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