[Taxacom] Pop article on taxonomy's decline

Stephen Thorpe stephen_thorpe at yahoo.co.nz
Fri Jan 28 16:49:42 CST 2011


true, but the rate of description of new taxa is being used in the present 
context just as a measure of taxonomic activity ("health"), in a world which 
seems to devalue it more and more ....




________________________________
From: Cristian Ruiz Altaba <cruizaltaba at dgmambie.caib.es>
To: Stephen Thorpe <stephen_thorpe at yahoo.co.nz>
Cc: Anthony Gill <gill.anthony at gmail.com>; taxacom at mailman.nhm.ku.edu
Sent: Fri, 28 January, 2011 9:37:20 PM
Subject: Re: [Taxacom] Pop article on taxonomy's decline

But we are missing, I think, a critical issue --synonymy. 

Taking freshwater Mollusca as a case in point, it appears that large, 
conspicuous animals like pond freshwater mussels have alarming rates of synonymy 
--according to some authors, over 500 names for the very same species. Even if 
there were a few species within that "500 pot", the synonymy rate in this group 
would still be in the order or 10*2. 


In contrast, minute, inconspicuous springsnails remained virtually unknown for a 
long time, with a synonymy rate in the Mediterranean area near 5 %. This has 
changed recently, with the advent of a certain breed of taxonomists (actually 
more on the parataxonomist side) who get scanning photographs of those tiny 
shells, effectively making them large and conspicuous. Then they make nice stamp 
albums and play with Latin, greatly increasing the rate of species descriptions. 
Alas, a lot of tiny mollusks (also in the oceans) are being described on the 
basis of minor, fairly subjective shell features, with no understanding of 
individual or population variation, and surely no use of any serious methodology 
developed by taxonomists. To make things worse, among the few papers dealing at 
all with soft-part anatomy, mistakes and wrong interpretations of characters are 
widespread, accounting for an additional increase in species and genus-level 
names. 


So any count of "new species" cannot be seriously based on just adding published 
descriptions. This has nothing to do with peer-review, because most often 
reviewers are not really aware of the particular taxon being treated. Indeed, 
top journals have published crap. In addition, even if there are taxonomists 
involved in grand databases, the case is often that the resulting species lists 
are rife with errors. Essentally because all too often a friend's gossip is 
deemed better that the Code... Fauna Europaea as a conspicuous example.

The bottomline is, I believe, that there is no shortcut towards good taxonomy. 
Nor for counting species.

All the best,

Cristian


Cristian R. Altaba
DG Biodiversitat
Conselleria de Medi Ambient
Govern de les Illes Balears


-----taxacom-bounces at mailman.nhm.ku.edu escribió: -----


Para: Anthony Gill <gill.anthony at gmail.com>
>De: Stephen Thorpe <stephen_thorpe at yahoo.co.nz>
>Enviado por: taxacom-bounces at mailman.nhm.ku.edu
>Fecha: 28/01/2011 05:25
>cc: taxacom at mailman.nhm.ku.edu
>Asunto: Re: [Taxacom] Pop article on taxonomy's decline
>
>interesting ... seems to be a lot of "black boxes" in the methodology here, and 

>very hard to independently verify or falsify whatever numbers SOS throws at us 
>...
>
>Stephen
>
>
>
>
>________________________________
>From: Anthony Gill <gill.anthony at gmail.com>
>To: Stephen Thorpe <stephen_thorpe at yahoo.co.nz>
>Cc: Tony.Rees at csiro.au; g.read at niwa.co.nz; taxacom at mailman.nhm.ku.edu
>Sent: Fri, 28 January, 2011 5:16:38 PM
>Subject: Re: [Taxacom] Pop article on taxonomy's decline
>
>The numbers are similar to ones for previous years, so if there is
>some sort of inflation going on, then it is a constant. The data was
>usually provided as numbers of new species for each higher taxon. (The
>first year, I asked Zoological Record for a breakdon by animal
>families, but that proved an awful lot of work to make sense of!). I'm
>not sure of how the providers came up with the numbers, so I guess
>there is chance that there is some inflation. My gut feeling however
>is that the numbers are conservative, because - owing to the lag in
>capturing new species descriptions - numbers for a given year
>continued to rise after the SOS 1 April cutoff date. (At least this
>was the case for IPNI data i checked one year.)
>
>If you are interested, it might be worth checking, say, the Zoological
>Records data against another source. One possible option might be
>Catalog of Fishes. (If so, bear in mind that Catalog of Fishes only
>tracks Recent fishes, so you would have to make sure you excluded
>Fossil taxa from the Zoo Records data.)
>
>Tony
>
>On Fri, Jan 28, 2011 at 3:06 PM, Stephen Thorpe
><stephen_thorpe at yahoo.co.nz> wrote:
>> thanks for that, Tony
>>
>> I'm not at all worried about "complete accuracy", but only about "ball park
>> figures", and 18000+ for 2008 seems just way too high to me, but this is
>> based on little more than "gut feeling"
>> the "sources", as such, are not really the issue, but rather how the data
>> was extracted and manipulated, and that I don't know
>>
>> do you think it possible that the number quoted for 2008 could somehow  be,
>> say, twice as much as the actual figure??
>>
>> Stephen
>>
>> ________________________________
>> From: Anthony Gill <gill.anthony at gmail.com>
>> To: Stephen Thorpe <stephen_thorpe at yahoo.co.nz>
>> Cc: Tony.Rees at csiro.au; g.read at niwa.co.nz; taxacom at mailman.nhm.ku.edu
>> Sent: Fri, 28 January, 2011 4:54:25 PM
>> Subject: Re: [Taxacom] Pop article on taxonomy's decline
>>
>> I was behind pulling together SOS numbers for the first couple of
>> years for the International Institute for Species Exploration at ASU.
>> The sources (partner organisations) are documented in the SOS reports,
>> and include Zoological Record, International Journal of Systematic and
>> Evolutionary Microbiology, and International Plant Names Index.
>> However, the counts are never going to be completely accurate as the
>> data providers could only provide a time slice of the data as it came
>> in; for the bulk of groups, new species descriptions are scattered
>> across a huge number of journals and books. This is one reason why the
>> report is released a year behind the "Top 10" competition (i.e., 2008
>> SOS numbers were released in 2010, but the Top 10 for that year was
>> for 2009 new species).
>>
>> I don't think too much attention should be paid to the total numbers
>> of species listed in the SOS reports, however.
>>
>> Tony
>>
>> On Fri, Jan 28, 2011 at 2:11 PM, Stephen Thorpe
>> <stephen_thorpe at yahoo.co.nz> wrote:
>>> Tony, Geoff,
>>> I think that you are missing the crucial point, which is that we don't
>>> know
>>> *exactly how* these numbers were calculated (I haven't yet read through
>>> all the
>>> SOS documentation, however). The numbers seem well o.t.t. to me, so I urge
>>> caution until we know *exactly how* they were calculated ...
>>> Stephen
>>>
>>>
>>>
>>>
>>> ________________________________
>>> From: "Tony.Rees at csiro.au" <Tony.Rees at csiro.au>
>>> To: stephen_thorpe at yahoo.co.nz; neale at bishopmuseum.org; tillier at mnhn.fr;
>>> mesibov at southcom.com.au; deepreef at bishopmuseum.org
>>> Cc: taxacom at mailman.nhm.ku.edu
>>> Sent: Fri, 28 January, 2011 4:00:50 PM
>>> Subject: RE: [Taxacom] Pop article on taxonomy's decline
>>>
>>>
>>> Hi Stephen, all,
>>>
>>> The numbers quoted earlier do not come from GNI, but from here:
>>>
>>> http://www.species.asu.edu/SOS
>>>
>>> where they are compiled from a range of reputable sources, all cited I
>>> think.
>>>
>>> Cheers - Tony
>>>
>>>
>>>> -----Original Message-----
>>>> From: taxacom-bounces at mailman.nhm.ku.edu [mailto:taxacom-
>>>> bounces at mailman.nhm.ku.edu] On Behalf Of Stephen Thorpe
>>>> Sent: Friday, 28 January 2011 1:58 PM
>>>> To: Neal Evenhuis; tillier at mnhn.fr; Bob Mesibov; Richard Pyle
>>>> Cc: taxacom
>>>> Subject: Re: [Taxacom] Pop article on taxonomy's decline
>>>>
>>>> >Therefore, GNI is not really the place to see how many new species were
>>>> proposed
>>>> >in a given year
>>>>
>>>> yes, but someone might try to use it for that, so we need to beware
>>>>
>>>> I don't think that there is a place to see how many new species were
>>>> proposed in
>>>> a given year! Isn't that one of the things biodiversity informatics is
>>>> (slowly)
>>>> working towards??
>>>>
>>>> so, I think we should be *highly cautious* about any claimed numbers ...
>>>> I
>>>> still
>>>> think 18000 is an order of magnitude too high for 2008 ... but how can I
>>>> check?
>>>>
>>>>
>>>> Stephen
>>>>
>>>>
>>>>
>>>>
>>>> ________________________________
>>>> From: Neal Evenhuis <neale at bishopmuseum.org>
>>>> To: Stephen Thorpe <stephen_thorpe at yahoo.co.nz>; "tillier at mnhn.fr"
>>>> <tillier at mnhn.fr>; Bob Mesibov <mesibov at southcom.com.au>; Richard Pyle
>>>> <deepreef at bishopmuseum.org>
>>>> Cc: taxacom <taxacom at mailman.nhm.ku.edu>
>>>> Sent: Fri, 28 January, 2011 3:52:38 PM
>>>> Subject: Re: [Taxacom] Pop article on taxonomy's decline
>>>>
>>>> GNI actually pulls up ALL records of a name -- misspellings, subsequent
>>>> usage,
>>>> etc.!
>>>>
>>>> Searching back to 2001 you get totals varying from 24079 (for 2008) to
>>>> 114252
>>>> (for 2004!) -- click on some of the names and you will see it whenever a
>>>> name
>>>> has been listed in a publication. Therefore, GNI is not really the place
>>>> to see
>>>> how many new species were proposed in a given year.
>>>>
>>>> -Neal
>>>>
>>>> On 1/27/11 4:30 PM, "Stephen Thorpe"
>>>> <stephen_thorpe at yahoo.co.nz<mailto:stephen_thorpe at yahoo.co.nz>> scribbled
>>>> the
>>>> following tidbit:
>>>>
>>>> maybe that figure of 18225 is OK ... hard to say, but one needs to be
>>>> careful
>>>> a search for 2008 on Global Names Index pulls up 24079 records (including
>>>> new
>>>> genera etc., as well as new species)
>>>> http://gni.globalnames.org/name_strings?search_term=2008
>>>> *but* just looking at the first page of 803 reveals 7 repeats based on
>>>> minor
>>>> citation variants (comma absent or present, authors in full or et al.,
>>>> etc.)
>>>> so, the number could be well astray quite easily ...
>>>>
>>>> ________________________________
>>>> From: Neal Evenhuis
>>>> <neale at bishopmuseum.org<mailto:neale at bishopmuseum.org>>
>>>> To: "tillier at mnhn.fr<mailto:tillier at mnhn.fr>"
>>>> <tillier at mnhn.fr<mailto:tillier at mnhn.fr>>; Bob Mesibov
>>>> <mesibov at southcom.com.au<mailto:mesibov at southcom.com.au>>; Richard Pyle
>>>> <deepreef at bishopmuseum.org<mailto:deepreef at bishopmuseum.org>>
>>>> Cc: taxacom
>>>> <taxacom at mailman.nhm.ku.edu<mailto:taxacom at mailman.nhm.ku.edu>>
>>>> Sent: Fri, 28 January, 2011 1:29:05 PM
>>>> Subject: Re: [Taxacom] Pop article on taxonomy's decline
>>>>
>>>> Figures can always be misleading.
>>>>
>>>> Without doing too much calculation and re-examination of all the
>>>> parameters
>>>> given below, let's just look at one:
>>>>
>>>> 18225 species described;
>>>> 50 species per year per taxonomist;
>>>> = 346 taxonomists doing all the work!
>>>> I doubt it. Especially since Philippe says 600 are doing Mollusca work
>>>> alone...
>>>>
>>>> Some of the figures given below are confounded by many real-life
>>>> situations not
>>>> taken into account:
>>>> 1. many co-authors on papers describing species
>>>> 2. students and retired professionals getting little or no pay
>>>>
>>>> A recalculation given many more complexities and realistic parameters of
>>>> species
>>>> being described should show that very little funding goes to taxonomy as
>>>> compared to systematics.
>>>>
>>>> -Neal
>>>>
>>>>
>>>> On 1/26/11 11:53 PM, "Simon TILLIER"
>>>>
>>>> <tillier at mnhn.fr<mailto:tillier at mnhn.fr><mailto:tillier at mnhn.fr<mailto:til
>>>> lier at mnhn.fr>>>
>>>>  scribbled the following tidbit:
>>>>
>>>> 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
>>>> professionals.
>>>>
>>>> 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><mailto:taxacom-
>>>> bounces at mailman.nhm.ku.edu<mailto:taxacom-bounces at mailman.nhm.ku.edu>>
>>>>  [mailto:taxacom-
>>>>
>>>> bounces at mailman.nhm.ku.edu<mailto:bounces at mailman.nhm.ku.edu><mailto:bounc
>>>> es at mailman.nhm.ku.edu<mailto:bounces at mailman.nhm.ku.edu>>]
>>>>  De la part de Bob Mesibov
>>>> Envoyé : jeudi 27 janvier 2011 00:34
>>>> À : Richard Pyle
>>>> Cc : TAXACOM
>>>> 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
>>>> isn't
>>>> 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
>>>> own
>>>> research has relied upon them), thousands of hours and millions of
>>>> dollars
>>>> have
>>>> been spent on these initiatives. However, many of these programs did not
>>>> financially support taxonomists generating the data these databases
>>>> required.'
>>>> Pyle: "Second of all, the amount of money spent on all database efforts
>>>> combined
>>>> 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
>>>> Flak
>>>> Catchers'. Correcting the problem might take millions, who knows? It's a
>>>> fluid
>>>> estimate. Take some real figures: in 2010-11, of the 4 of the 9 taxonomy
>>>> grants
>>>> from the Australian Biological Resources Study (the Federal taxonomy
>>>> honeypot) to
>>>> professional taxonomists were for AUD$10000 *over 3 years*. That really
>>>> is
>>>> trivial.
>>>> 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
>>>> *should*
>>>> have been funding the taxonomists. And here again one of my favourite
>>>> quotes,
>>>> from former EOL head James Edwards: "We have not given enough thought to
>>>> the
>>>> 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
>>>> going."
>>>> (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
>>>> dollars
>>>> 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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>>
>>
>>
>> --
>> Dr Anthony C. Gill
>> Natural History Curator
>> A12 Macleay Museum
>> University of Sydney
>> NSW 2006
>> Australia.
>>
>> E-mail:  anthony.c.gill at sydney.edu.au
>>
>>
>
>
>
>-- 
>Dr Anthony C. Gill
>Natural History Curator
>A12 Macleay Museum
>University of Sydney
>NSW 2006
>Australia.
>
>E-mail:  anthony.c.gill at sydney.edu.au
>
>
>
>      
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