[Taxacom] previous post focused on collection, this one on species description

Jose Fernandez Triana jftriana at uoguelph.ca
Sun Jun 9 13:43:27 CDT 2013


Hi all,

I have not read Costello et al. (2013) yet, so cannot comment on that paper for the time being (but will read it quite soon). 

However, I agree 100% with Alan's comments and his perceptions on taxonomy (by the way, thanks Alan for such a detailed and thoughtful email with so many good points!). 

I myself work with a completely different group, namely the Microgastrinae, a subfamily of parasitoid wasps belonging to Braconidae (insect Order Hymenoptera). There are almost 2,300 described species worldwide, BUT new estimates put the actual number 8-20 times higher (up to perhaps 40,000 species). This from a single subfamily of a single family of parasitoid wasps...

There is no evidence whatsoever that we have reached a peak as for species discovery. In fact, the more approaches we use (e.g. biological data(host species), DNA barcoding, morphometrics, etc) the more species that we keep finding. There seems to be a significant number of morphologically cryptic species within this group; also, microgastrines seem to be extremely species-specific (as for hosts), usually parasitizing one or just a few related species of Lepidoptera caterpillars. For the past 7-8 years we have started to realized the magnitude of the group and how much is there to be done (or, to put it in a more humble perspective: how few we know about the group!).

Not to brag -or to top Chris numbers- but just in the Canadian National Collection of Insects (Ottawa) we have over 1500 new species of Microgastrinae, waiting to be properly named and published (they are already pinned and separated as such, there is just not time or resources to described them as fast as we would like! If some one would be interested, I could provide a detailed account of those new species, they come mainly from Neotropical and Old World tropics, but also from pretty much any place of the planet except for the Antarctica). 

For the past couple of years I have been involved in efforts trying to speed-up the process of describing those species (efforts that other colleagues have called as "turbotaxonomy", I do not have time now to expand into this subject, but will do it in a future post later this summer). For example, we are about to finish a paper describing almost 200 new species from ONE genus in Costa Rica, a paper done in "just" 20 months of work (or about 10 new species/month/one taxonomist). But even at that pace -which would roughly be 100 new species/year/taxonomist- we would still need 200 years for one taxonomist to finish with that single subfamliy of parasitoid wasps!

Even in Canada, which is relatively well known (and a low-diversity country, at least compared against the tropics) we have only described 50% of the species -perhaps even less. But the rate of species discovery and description is actually increasing very fast -within the last 15 years or so. Thus, I strongly agree with Alan's view from his work on plants.

After this mess of email, I think that what I wanted to say -and to share with the list- is that we are FAR from the end days for taxonomy. And it is not true that we are describing less species than before (at least not as for vascular plants from southern US or the Microgastrinae worldwide goes :)   

And I am sure that there will be many more examples from other colleagues -e.g. I know that Chris Thompson, who somehow started this thread, is one of the best examples of productive taxonomists and his situation is pretty much similar.

My two cents (and, as told above, I could provide references and detailed numbers to back up the claims made about microgastrines).

Cheers,
Jose

--
José L. Fernández-Triana, PhD.
Research Associate, Canadian National Collection of Insects,
and Biodiversity Institute of Ontario
960 Carling Ave, Ottawa, ON, K1A 0C6
Phone: 613-759-1832 Email: jftriana at uoguelph.ca, Jose.Fernandez at agr.gc.ca
http://www.canacoll.org/Hym/Staff/Triana/Triana.htm
http://cncbraconidae.blogspot.ca/


----- Original Message -----
From: "Alan Weakley" <weakley at bio.unc.edu>
To: "Mark J. Costello" <markcost at gmail.com>, "Taxacom" <taxacom at mailman.nhm.ku.edu>
Cc: "Mark Costello - Leigh Marine" <m.costello at auckland.ac.nz>
Sent: Sunday, June 9, 2013 10:55:16 AM
Subject: [Taxacom] previous post focused on collection,	this one on species description

I agree with most of the conclusions in Costello, Wilson, & Houlding (2013).

Generalized, one might characterize the general trend in taxonomy as being from 1. massive and exploratory collecting and (often uncritical) naming of those collections to 2. Critical reassessment, reanalysis, correcting past errors/redundancies, and filling in gaps.  This generality is complicated by new technologies and characters applied (let's see, in rough order, gross morphology, anatomy, karyology, allozyme chromatography, DNA sequences of 1 gene, DNA sequences of more, etc.), and by ever-shifting paradigm changes in the definition of what is a species (or other taxon rank).  Obviously, in different taxon groups, we are at very different stages along that route (but note that because of the complications mentioned, the route never actually ends at a stopping point of "the Truth").

So, here is a brief perspective from a relatively well known group (vascular plants), moderately speciose (350,000 worldwide, give or take 20%), with a relatively high taxonomist / species ratio.  To narrow it still a bit further, my main area of expertise for vascular plants is the southeastern United States, an area that has been explored, collected, and had species described for 4 centuries.  So, this should be among the "group-places" that is towards the end of the process of taxonomic understanding.  Admittedly, we are in a different era re species descriptions, in many taxa and in many parts of the world.

In this region and this group, for which I have detailed information allowing an analysis, the number of new species being described is currently increasing, maybe even accelerating!  I'm not saying that the number of new species being described now is as high as it was in the late 1700s, when all the easy and common plants of eastern North America were being described (usually several to many times over, more on that in a minute).  But it is demonstrably higher than it was 30 or 50 years ago, when (some would suggest) we were in a Golden Age of funding for taxonomy.

For vascular plants in the Southeast US, here are the numbers of new vascular plant species described, by decade:

1960s: 37
1970s: 47
1980s: 56
1990s: 57
2000s: 100
2010s (so far):  18
Pending (estimate of known taxa "in the works", certainly an underestimate, all likely to emerge in the 2010s):  85 

This is a total of 400, in a region with a native flora of about 4400, so an increase over the past ca. 50 years of about 10%.  

So a few comments/reflections on these numbers, which may be interesting or informative relative to the idea that we are in the End Days of taxonomy.

1.  The taxonomic validity of species described in the past 50 years (in this group and region) seems to be very high (perhaps 10 out of 400 are commonly dismissed or doubted as of 2013).  I say "seems to be" because of 2, below.  For new taxa named before 1900, there are probably an average of at least 2 or 3 additional names (NOT including shifts from genus to genus, or 'mere' rank changes, but heterotypic named entities) per currently recognized taxon.  Thus, say, 10,000 synonymized entities.
2.   I have cataloged and analyzed the taxonomic circumscriptions (concepts) applied to the Southeastern flora over the past 80 years.  There are definite trends in splitting and lumping, with a major splitting phase from 1890-1950, a major lumping phase from 1950 to 1985, and a splitting phase from 1985 until now.  One would like to believe that the current splitting phase reflects better information, new and improved techniques, and wiser taxonomic philosophy (I DO believe so), but the possibility has to be considered that 50 years from now the consensus will be that we were misguided.
3.  Two centuries ago, new species were named in the Southeastern United States flora by the hundreds at a time in floras, 50 or 100 years ago by 5s and 10s in monographs.  Now most new species each warrant an individual paper of 5-20 pages, carefully analyzing morphological and other distinctions, often including molecular phylogenetic analyses.  So yes, the effort per new species is higher, but also the accuracy and reliability.  Here is one example (directly accessible, not behind a paywall):  http://www.phytoneuron.net/105PhytoN-Marshallia.pdf
4.  There ARE more people describing new taxa (in this region and taxonomic group) now than 50 years ago.  The profile of those people has changed.  There are fewer academics and more "other", fewer are employed strictly as taxonomists (many are employees of agencies in the NatureSErve / Natural Heritage Program network).
5.  Tools like Google Earth have improved the efficiency of field work (one can find specialized habitats likely to have remaining undescribed taxa much more efficiently).  
6.  The ever-increasing "sampling" reflected in museums/herbaria increases the efficiency of museum/herbarium work (and the increasing digitization of collections represents an order of magnitude efficiency).
7.  The idea that "most species have been discovered" is (in many taxon groups) a very low bar.  Barring a major paradigm shift in "what is a species" (NOT impossible!), this is undoubtedly true in vascular plants.  
8.  Etc.

Alan Weakley
Director and Curator, UNC Herbarium (NCU), North Carolina Botanical Garden
Adjunct Assistant Professor, Dept. of Biology and Curriculum in Ecology and the Environment
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC, USA




-----Original Message-----
From: taxacom-bounces at mailman.nhm.ku.edu [mailto:taxacom-bounces at mailman.nhm.ku.edu] On Behalf Of Mark J. Costello
Sent: Saturday, June 08, 2013 11:08 PM
To: 'Taxacom'
Cc: Mark Costello - Leigh Marine
Subject: Re: [Taxacom] Costello on species again: new paper

Dear Jason
That is a valid point, and one we discussed in the paper. On the other hand, we have a few modern tools that may increase efficiency. It would be interesting to quantify the effort needed to collect and describe species over the decades and see if it has increased or decreased; and perhaps it would indicate how to further increase efficiency.
Thank you
Mark
PS - I am happy to email pdf of paper m.costello at auckland.ac.nz.



-----Original Message-----
From: taxacom-bounces at mailman.nhm.ku.edu
[mailto:taxacom-bounces at mailman.nhm.ku.edu] On Behalf Of JF Mate
Sent: Sunday, 9 June 2013 12:52 a.m.
To: Taxacom
Subject: Re: [Taxacom] Costello on species again: new paper

They seem to be taking a leaf out of ECON 101 and developing a taxonomic
GDP: GTP or Gross Taxonomic Product. It has worked really well for the
economy so I can imagine all the positive applications for science (akin to
Impact Factor) for tenure, funding, etc.

On a more serious note, I wonder if you can compare output across time the
way they seem to do. Without wanting to stir the proverbial bucket, maybe
taxonomists are (in general) just gathering more data for each description?
There is the issue of tidying-up previous work, incorporating phylogenetic
information into the descriptions (more data gathering plus analysis);
tracking down types, etc. One only needs to look at descriptions from the
60´s to see that you could have fit them in an A5 double spaced, often with
a single, rather crude illustration. Good luck getting that out nowadays
and not be laughed out ;)

Jason




On 8 June 2013 11:44, Stephen Thorpe <stephen_thorpe at yahoo.co.nz> wrote:

> Costello, M.J.; Wilson, S.; Houlding, B. 2013: More taxonomists describing
> significantly fewer species per unit effort may indicate that most species
> have been discovered. Systematic biology, doi: 10.1093/sysbio/syt024
>
> This seems to be "all over the place" - as per usual ...
>
> Stephen
> _______________________________________________
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