[Taxacom] Pop article on taxonomy's decline

Simon TILLIER tillier at mnhn.fr
Thu Jan 27 03:53:30 CST 2011

Some elements in support to Rich’s (unpopular) position:

1.  18225 new species have been described in 2008 (source = State of
Observed Species 2010). This rate of description has existed for more than
two decades now (source = Philippe Bouchet), and is far higher than ever
before since Linnaeus times;

2. New species are being described by more authors than ever, which is
obviously in contradiction with the idea of extinction of taxonomists: for
new Mollusc species, from ca 150 authors since 1930 to 1960, to 400+ in 2000
and 600+ in 2008 (source = Philippe Bouchet)

3. The GBIF budget was 2.6 million euros in 2009. A rough calculation of the
cost of a new species description may be as follows:
- a taxonomist full salary cost may be approximately 60000 euros / year;
- he/she may describe at least 50 new species per year (much more in some
taxa), working full time at species description;
- so a new species description costs ca 1200 euros;
- the collection, infrastructure and publication costs may double this
amount, lets accept 2500 euros / species description;
- then ca 45,5 million euros  are spent yearly to describe 18225 species, ie
20 times the GBIF budget and probably ca 10 times the cost of all database
initiatives. The ratio would still be very much higher if we took into
consideration the capital immobilized in both cases (real estate, etc).
Spending the GBIF budget on species description would allow an increase in
description rate of  5-6%, which may well be less than the benefit resulting
from direct access to a lot of information which is physically fragmented in
places too numerous to allow easy access by more  than very few privileged

So, and unless these rational figures are rationally demonstrated to be
false, taxonomists are not endangered and the cost of databases is trivial,
even if the quality and quantity of the information accessible obviously
need improvement.

I see actually two problems: the first is understanding why we perceive
taxonomists as endangered when objective observations indicate that this is
not the case, at least in a first approach; and the second problem is how we
can address the absence of any knowledge on something like 50 – 100% of all
living species.  

Simon Tillier

> -----Message d'origine-----
> De : taxacom-bounces at mailman.nhm.ku.edu [mailto:taxacom-
> bounces at mailman.nhm.ku.edu] De la part de Bob Mesibov
> Envoyé : jeudi 27 janvier 2011 00:34
> À : Richard Pyle
> Objet : Re: [Taxacom] Pop article on taxonomy's decline
> Hi, Rich.
> I think your lack of food may have affected your lines of argument :-)
> Pyle: "First of all, it's wrong."
> Whether existing taxonomists think the databasing efforts are good or not
> relevant. The author of the Wired article is Craig McLain, assistant
director of
> science for the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center and like you, a
keen marine
> expeditioner. McLain doesn't knock databasing. He says: 'Thankfully (my
> research has relied upon them), thousands of hours and millions of dollars
> been spent on these initiatives. However, many of these programs did not
> financially support taxonomists generating the data these databases
> Pyle: "Second of all, the amount of money spent on all database efforts
> is *trivial* compared to what is needed to correct the problem."
> Ah, the old 'drop in the bucket' argument from Tom Wolfe's 'Mau Mauing the
> Catchers'. Correcting the problem might take millions, who knows? It's a
> estimate. Take some real figures: in 2010-11, of the 4 of the 9 taxonomy
> from the Australian Biological Resources Study (the Federal taxonomy
honeypot) to
> professional taxonomists were for AUD$10000 *over 3 years*. That really is
> How much does one EOL Biodiversity Synthesis Meeting cost?
> Pyle: "Third, in most cases that money has not come from a source that
would have
> been available to taxonomists anyway."
> Which is McLain's point, and lots of other people's. That source damn well
> have been funding the taxonomists. And here again one of my favourite
> from former EOL head James Edwards: "We have not given enough thought to
> people who provide the information on which the Encyclopedia of Life is
built," Dr.
> Edwards acknowledged. "We are looking into ways to keep that community
> (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/26/science/26ency.html?_r=3)
> Pyle: "Fourth, the entire argument is a Red Herring, because the real
problem with
> misdirected funds is more dollars spent doing lab-based taxonomy, and less
> spent doing field-based taxonomy."
> You probably need to clarify that a bit more. I think it's still true that
most new
> species are 'discovered' in museums and herbaria.
> --
> 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
> Ph: (03) 64371195; 61 3 64371195
> Webpage: http://www.qvmag.tas.gov.au/?articleID=570
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