[Taxacom] Pop article on taxonomy's decline

Stephen Thorpe stephen_thorpe at yahoo.co.nz
Thu Jan 27 21:07:34 CST 2011

I cannot speak for Hawaii, or for the biota of the oceans, or for anything 
really, except for a few things, such as New Zealand beetles for one. The point 
I was trying to make is that after 10+years of intensive field observation and 
collecting, I *never once* encountered a native beetle species that there wasn't 
already at least 1 specimen of in collections. In N.Z., there just aren't untold 
multitudes of native beetles going extinct faster than we can collect and 
preserve specimens of them - that is pure fiction! Yet, certain entomologists 
continue to divert a significant amount of funding to travelling around the 
country every summer, setting mass capture traps, and only ever picking out one 
or two things "of interest" to them, while the backlog of unworked material in 
collections grows at an alarming rate. It is just *too easy* to say that you are 
collecting for "the future", when, as the saying goes, "tomorrow never comes", 
and people are just collecting more bulk samples from the same places as they 
were set decades ago and still not sorted ...

From: Richard Pyle <deepreef at bishopmuseum.org>
To: TAXACOM <taxacom at mailman.nhm.ku.edu>
Sent: Thu, 27 January, 2011 1:53:50 PM
Subject: Re: [Taxacom] Pop article on taxonomy's decline

Oh, and one more thing (thanks to Stephen's second post for reminding me):

>I think it's still true that most new species are 'discovered' in museums
and herbaria

This is true, and is also another part of the *problem*.  Because most
as-yet undiscovered/undocumented new species *don't exist* in museums and
herbaria.  I think it's wonderful that many of these things have been
collected and preserved, even if they haven't yet been properly  documented.
But my real concern is the elephant in the room -- the millions of species
not yet collected.

> So, Rich Pyle's emphasis on more field work may reflect a personal
> to some extent ... nothing annoys me more than seeing more and more funded

> field work combined with less and less actual taxonomy being published on
what is collected ...

This is where we differ.  It's not a personal preference; it's a recognition
of the reality of the modern world.  A hundred years from now, people will
still be able to measure the morphometrics and extract and sequence the DNA
of well-preserve museum specimens.  However, they will *not* be able to
acquire the specimens of species that have gone extinct before ever being
collected.  Increasingly, taxonomy will become less the study of "what we
share the planet with", and more a study of "what we used to share the
planet with".  I'm sorry you're annoyed with people collecting and
preserving specimens without doing the follow-up publications.  But I'm
much, much more than annoyed when a species goes extinct before anyone ever
had a chance to know that it existed.  We're in a race right now, and the
race is not to build the tree of life in time to get tenure; the race is to
understand as much about biodiversity as we can before it's gone.
> It is all about balance, and finding the appropriate funding levels for
> Cladists can do cladistics, biogeographers can do biogeography, molecular 
> biologists can do molecular biology, but taxonomists should do taxonomy

Now we're back in agreement again!



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