[Taxacom] Pop article on taxonomy's decline

Stephen Thorpe stephen_thorpe at yahoo.co.nz
Sun Jan 30 19:21:03 CST 2011

interesting ... one might expect a resurgence with the recent establishment of 
Phytotaxa and PhytoKeys?
Another potential problem is that botany and zoology may not be comparable - the 
botanists in N.Z. (and Oz?) are managing to sustain taxonomic activity better 
than the zoologists, which is probably in part why you can get figures for 
botany ...

From: "Tony.Rees at csiro.au" <Tony.Rees at csiro.au>
To: stephen_thorpe at yahoo.co.nz; TPape at snm.ku.dk; taxacom at mailman.nhm.ku.edu
Sent: Mon, 31 January, 2011 2:07:46 PM
Subject: RE: [Taxacom] Pop article on taxonomy's decline

Stephen Thorpe wrote:
> yes, but I thought the context of this thread (as the subject heading suggests) 
>was about a possible
> present decline in taxonomy? If so, then estimating the current rate of 
>taxonomic activity from legacy
> data doesn't really help! The question is has it slowed down in recent years?
Well, I’m first trying to establish a baseline here, from which one can 
potentially see whether more recent quoted rates of taxon descriptions look 
plausible or not.
I cannot provide independent numbers on new species descriptions, but can (to a 
degree) for new genera for some groups at this time (more to come). For example 
in vascular plants, excluding fossil ones, here are some possible numbers of 
Year  .. new genera described (excluding orchid and other hybrids, which 
otherwise distort the figures)
1991      65
1992      60
1993      69
1994      65
1995      51
1996      49
1997      59
1998      72
1999      64
2000      69
2001      53
2002      32
2003      59
2004      55
2005      39
2006      67
2007      46
2008      27 *
2009      16 *
2010      14 *
These figures are estimates based on incomplete analysis because I have not 
finished working through all the available data, but will not be far off, except 
for the “recent data lag” which most likely influences the figures from 
2008-2010 (marked *) to some extent, or maybe even for a year or two preceding 
as well. (I could do the same for some other key groups given a bit more time).
So, ignoring the 2008-2010 values maybe, the mean value through the ‘90s was a 
bit higher (61.5 new extant vascular plant genera/yr) than for the ‘00s (52.5) 
 - let the interpretations commence…
Regards - Tony


From:"Tony.Rees at csiro.au" <Tony.Rees at csiro.au>
To: stephen_thorpe at yahoo.co.nz; TPape at snm.ku.dk; taxacom at mailman.nhm.ku.edu
Sent: Sun, 30 January, 2011 1:26:26 PM
Subject: RE: [Taxacom] Pop article on taxonomy's decline

Dear Stephen, all,

Well I have not tried to validate that figure directly as yet, but it's a 
hypothesis open to confirmation or falsifying on a group-by-group basis, as and 
when accurate figures are available; and of course one would expect some 
variation between groups as well. Overall it is really a legacy figure based on 
my (again provisional) guesstimate of perhaps 250,000 valid genera (for all 
groups) and around 2.2 million valid species (1.9m extant, 0.3m fossil), and 
presuming that at least as a first approximation such ratios continue with the 
desciption of new taxa - again open to disproof of course, but a basis for some 
at least order-of-magnitude estimates for various tasks invlving names 
compilations and so on. Of course if someone has a more accurate figure for 
valid genera, extant and fossil, we can simply plug that in instead (maybe as 
low as 200,000, I'm not sure, but probably in that order anyway).

Interestingly in vascular plants, for which the Plant List has recently 
published a species-level synopsis, the following stats are given:

"The Plant List contains 620 plant families and 16,167 plant genera.

The status<http://www.theplantlist.org/about/#status> of the 1,040,426 species 
names, are as follows:

        Status  Total

◕      Accepted<http://www.theplantlist.org/about/#accepted>  298,900 28.7%
◕      Synonym<http://www.theplantlist.org/about/#synonym>    477,601 45.9%
◕      Unresolved<http://www.theplantlist.org/about/#unresolved>      263,925 

Note that to do the analysis we want, we need to know what proportion of the 
genera are synonyms, and guesstimate what proportion of the "unresolved" species 
names will turn out to be good species. Let's try and put some guesstimates in 
there and see what pops out: presume that 20% of the genus names are synonyms (I 
have not checked, but plan to do so at some point) and 20% of the unresolved 
names will turn out to be good species - gives 325,000 valid species in 12,900 
valid genera = around 25 valid species/genus on average, as opposed to the 
figure of 8 I have presumed as a mean across all groups. So, either the vascular 
plants are much more speciose per genus than other organisms, or my average of 8 
is a gross underestimate. I would suspect the former, but happy to revise the 
latter upwards if it seems justified - it would be interesting to see some 
figures for other groups, particularly major insect groups and crustaceans. Then 
to see real trends worthy of extrapolation, one should do the analysis on a year 
by year basis instead of the overall totals - certainly possible in some groups 
for which the valid species and genera are well known (although one would need 
to distinguish real new species from new combinations, and somehow decide 
exactly what to count in the genus context too).

Hoping the above is of maybe some interest,

Regards - Tony



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