[Taxacom] response to 60 new dragonfly species campaign ("Stephen thread")

KD Dijkstra kd.dijkstra at naturalis.nl
Wed Dec 16 05:10:21 CST 2015

Dear taxonomic community,

As elaborated in my previous email, the "urgent" form chosen for our recent
publication of 60 new African dragonfly species was practical, but also
intended to bare the challenges to taxonomic expertise today. That's not
news, but still necessary.

Institutes are hiring staff to conserve and database our collections,
informaticians to share and accumulate our records, macro-ecologists to
analyse our data, lab technicians to barcode our samples, and genomicists
to generate more data still. Conservationists, consultants and enthusiasts
clamour for our species knowledge. All of this has made our expertise more
important. This is fantastic. And yet, how often do we see a job ad for
someone to study those specimens, validate those records, interpret those
analyses and basically do anything grounded in an actual familiarity with
the species? As support decreased, pressure on our expertise has increased.

Biodiversity science seems to be hurtling towards a state where all
available data may be accessible, but where fewer and fewer people know
what these data mean. As one museum department slaves to preserve and
digitize the collections as "heritage", another is discouraged to study
them because "science" won't support it. That could ultimately leave us
with big data and grand analyses, but no understanding. For example, none
of the world's great Odonata collections has a dedicated researcher
anymore. Just serving the tens of thousands worldwide who simply enjoy
these insects' beauty, would make it worth it.

I often feel that taxonomy's greatest impediment is the lack of a common
ideal. Concerned with many millions of species we can't really be blamed
for being divided, but it does weaken our front. Sometimes taxonomists
almost seem to invite management (that may not fathom taxonomy's true
value) to sideline them by failing to unite and be held accountable. Yes,
taxonomy's demise seems like a witch hunt, complete with false accusations
("not scientific", "not cited well" etc.), but we must also beware of our
own self-righteousness and dissent. Does disparaging my discoveries help
those who described scores of ground beetles from Hawaii or Stephen and his
taxonomic achievements? I don't believe so.

The tragedy of species loss makes taxonomic expertise more important than
ever before. It also provides us with a common purpose. True, we are
unlikely to save the canon fodder from the canons, but we can at least mark
their graves. So we should broadcast every species we discover. And we
should promote every specialist that really knows them. A central social
media feed is a brilliant idea. Give authors the option to approve this and
supply basic info (e.g. family or vernacular name). Entice the receiver
with an image and the reminder that now perhaps two million species are
named, but we have many more millions to go.

I believe the message we were trying to get across can't be repeated
enough. The taxonomic expert's future remains tenuous. I don't believe
"science" will save the expert, but the public's growing awareness of
nature's perilous state just might. Right now, we must constantly gamble
with our wisdom: we know it is unique, but also that nothing has become
cheaper than knowledge. Also for the African dragonflies we are releasing
every bit of intellectual capital we have without any outlook of personal
job security. But we must, because what isn't planted is also not going to

Were we successful to get the message out this time? A little at most. So
every new contribution needs its campaign.

Cheers, KD

Klaas-Douwe 'KD' B. Dijkstra
Naturalis Biodiversity Center, Leiden, The Netherlands
Conservation Ecology and Entomology, Stellenbosch University, South Africa

Sixty new dragonfly species from Africa:
Press release: https://goo.gl/KGMsyC
Info and images: https://goo.gl/vRoJSL
Full publication: www.osmylus.com/index.php/downloads
Watch discovery of new species in DR Congo: youtu.be/Arr2k7dwzSU

Handbook of African Dragonflies:
Freshwater Biodiversity and Aquatic Insect Diversification:
Consensus classification of dragonflies:
Most complete damselfly phylogeny to date:

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