Taxonomists: an endangered species

May 8, 2011 • 5:21 am

This piece from Wired Science, “The mass extinction of scientists who study species.” came out a while back, but I was thinking about this problem last night.  The genus Drosophila (“fruit flies” or “vinegar flies”), on which I work, has been the most important group of organisms for the study of evolutionary genetics.  Indeed, much of the early advances in genetics proper, like the finding of genes on sex chromosomes, or the discovery of the linear order of genes on chromosomes, was made in Drosophila.

But all the work on evolutionary genetics of Drosophila—work on speciation, on patterns of evolution, on ecological genetics, on evolutionary biogeography, and even on molecular evolution—depends on an accurate classification of species in the group.  How can you study how speciation works if you don’t know which species are the most closely related?  How can you study the rates of molecular evolution unless you know how species fit into a family tree?  Taxonomy—the science of classifying organisms and arranging them in their proper evolutionary relationships—is fundamental in nearly all areas of evolutionary biology.  My most cited paper, published in 1989 with my student Allen Orr, critically depended on knowing the correct “family tree” of many Drosophila species.

And yet, as the Wired article shows, taxonomy is a dying field—not just for Drosophila but for all species.  There is no glory, fame, or even employment for those who want to labor away at the microscope, meticulously dissecting insect genitalia or flower structure.  Part of this is due to the rise of molecular systematics—the use of DNA or molecular information to reconstruct family trees—which can derive evolutionary relationships rather quickly.  But before you can sequence different species, you have to identify them as different, and that relies largely on those taxonomists with microscopes and infinite patience.

When I was in college, there were many people working on Drosophila taxonomy: a group in Texas, people here at Chicago, and workers in France.  Even some of the greats, like my academic grandfather Theodosius Dobzhansky, occasionally described new species.  And many famous evolutionists, like Dobzhansky and Ernst Mayr, began their careers in systematics, and were driven into evolution by the need to understand the patterns they described.  Now, as far as I know, there’s only one Drosophila taxonomist left: David Grimaldi at the American Museum of Natural History. He’s a superb evolutionist and taxonomist, but he’s only one person—one person to describe a luxuriant evolutionary group that may include five thousand species.  And Grimaldi studies many groups, not just Drosophila.

As the Wired piece shows, what is true for fly taxonomy is true for everything.  This problem becomes more critical when we try to catalog biodiversity, for such catalogs depend not just on grinding up and sequencing a lot of individuals captured willy-nilly in nature, but the painstaking labors of those traditional taxonomists who identify the groups that need grinding.  From Wired:

Many biology departments within universities no longer employ a taxonomist. The remaining positions are relegated to museums.

Why? As Sørensen [Martin Sørensen, a Danish taxonomist] explains, “The declining number of taxonomists and systematists is at least to some extent linked to the fact that your scientific production today should be measurable.” And the units of measurement are collected grant money or the impact factor of a journal paper. Taxonomy has never been considered hot, and pure taxonomic studies are rarely funded, he wrote. Departments need grant money to operate.

Science as an institution may also be partly responsible for undercutting taxonomic work. Although a crude metric fraught with several issues, we measure the impact of a scientific paper by how many times other scientific papers have cited it. Similarly, we measure the impact of scientists by counting their cumulative citations. Unfortunately, taxonomic work is rarely cited, even when it should be.

On the other hand, the brilliant biodiversity databases we have created lead to a plethora of scientific papers. The Paleobiology Database, a comprehensive online catalog of fossil species, has already generated more than 100 publications. But the requirement for using this database, like most others, is citation of the database itself, not the nearly 35,000 papers generating the original data.

The decline in taxonomists means that at some point in the future we will be unable to train new generations of taxonomists. This problem is recognized by the National Science Foundation, which in 1994 created a program to enhance taxonomic research. But while this initiative provides training, it does not create job opportunities.

All the species in the world are out there.  There may be as many as fifty million of them, or even more, and that’s not counting bacteria.  How many species have been identified and given scientific names?  Only 1.9 million—perhaps 4% of Earth’s diversity.  Among the unrecognized remainder lie millions of fascinating evolutionary tales, strange adaptations, occasions for wonder—and even cures for diseases.  It’s been estimated that 70% of the new drugs introduced in America in the last 25 years derive from plants. But how do you know which plants to test if you don’t know which species are out there?

Mourning the loss of taxonomy is a useless endeavor, like writing posts on the demise of the glass Coke bottle.  Taxonomy will wane, even with the stimulus of molecular data, and few people will go into biology with the aim of identifying and classifying the diversity of life.  In the long run, that will severely hurt not just evolutionary biology, but biology as a whole.  For just as nothing makes sense except in the light of evolution, so nothing in evolution makes sense except in the light of taxonomy.

I’ve been doing science for nigh on forty years, and won’t be around, thank Ceiling Cat, when my field transforms itself into molecular biology and DNA sequencing.  But while I’m here, and mourning the demise of taxonomy, let me also thank the many taxonomists whose earlier work enabled me to do what I love: studying the origin of species in fruit flies.

29 thoughts on “Taxonomists: an endangered species

  1. Do the “laws” of supply and demand kick in at any point? It would seem that at some point science organisations and their funders would realise how valuable that discipline is, and the work would become well funded?

    1. Or is it anything to do with Creationist pressure groups lobbying to cut the funding? I could imagine some doing that if they thought that it would make evidence for Evolution ‘disappear’. In some people’s minds, there is nothing wrong from changing ‘how things are’ to ‘how they ought to be’ and then believing that is ‘how things always were.’ I am English but I have come across visiting Republican fundamentalists who in an unguarded moment, admitted to that kind of thing.

    2. This requires that users of taxonomy understand that their work requires taxonomists. My impression is that a great number of biologists just don’t get it; they assume we already know everything, or that (somehow) it just doesn’t matter.

      There are researchers out there working on speciation and hybridization, pumping out lots of papers without knowing what species they’re working with, how they’re related, or which ones are hybridizing. I kid you not.

      And don’t get me started on all the field work in ecology and at land management agencies that involves sending poorly trained, poorly paid seasonal employees out into the world and assuming they’ll come back with an accurate depiction of biodiversity…

  2. There is a great deal of work being done in systematics by philosophers of science. What is odd is, that with such demand a man with the talents of John S. Wilkins, especially in regards to taxonomy, species concepts and systematics that has a hard time finding steady employment in the field. Perhaps it is, as they say that systematics doesn’t seem relevant with availability of tools such as genome sequencing and DNA analysis, that systematics are not seen as important and don’t get funding.

    Is it because grants are generally placed for specific studies, but few grants are based on systematizing the results of findings?

    Perhaps a new line item of grant requests can include a fee to be paid to a taxonomics association for organizing the results of finding a new species into the larger picture.

    Just a thought. An Evolving Thought, if you will.

    1. a great deal of work

      I think that overstates the case a bit. Dr. Coyne is talking about taxonomists, not philosphers of taxonomy. Wilkins’ work is actually of little utility to the vast majority of applied taxonomists, people who really know organisms (morphology, at least).

      Systematics is a quite different endeavor, as well, from the kind of within-(say)-Family taxonomy that would be required to fill the knowledge gaps to which Dr. Coyne refers.

  3. My grad advisor had studied the morphology and taxonomy of his group and there was a long tradition of his work building on his advisor’s work and so on. But by the time I came along he’d move on to doing molecular systematics exclusively and that is what I was trained in. I thought it was a shame. And one of my happier moments was visiting a museum collection on my own (while on vacation) to look at some specimens first hand.

  4. There was mention of the NSF program for increasing systematics, around 1994. I received an NSF grant application, probably under the mentioned program, to review. It was to allow an ecologist to do the taxonomy/systematics of a particular group of fishes. It was a well done application, and the person would have studied with an expert in the group. I mulled it over and dithered around for a while. I knew of people who were systematists/taxonomists who couldn’t find a job. Finally I called the NSF program officer and told him I was returning the grant request unreviewed. I did not feel that I could contribute to a program to make people into taxonomists when I knew of so many unemployed, or underemployed, genuine taxonomists.

    There is a paper by Erlich and Raven (or vice versa) which I think greatly contributed to the decline of museum taxonomy. Their basic argument was that the typical museum specimen was not very useful for what ever analysis would be done in the future. Given that we don’t know how to get DNA out of a fish specimen which has been hardened with formaldehyde, their argument has merit. In any case, shortly thereafter, the museum at Stanford was shut down and specimens from that, and other collections, were moved to California Academy of Sciences or to the Los Angeles County Museum. As you know, Stanford has had a long history as a major producer of top-level fish taxonomists, and that program died with the transfer.

    Bad taxonomy is the root of all evil.

  5. One of the problems is that all too many scientists in other fields look down on the discipline. One need only recall the late Nobel Prize winning physicist Luis Alverez, who with his son, Walter, discovered the asteroid collision that eliminated the dinosaurs, remarking that taxonomists were stamp collectors.

    1. It’s still contested that the Chicxulub asteroid did in the non-avian dinosaurs. Don Prothero in ‘Catastrophes’ has convinced me that it was the Indian Deccan Traps volcanos.

      That’s what fascinates me about science. There’s always arguments about one thing or another, based on interpretation of the evidence.

      I think that’s a strength not a weakness.

  6. Good post. It’s a real shame.

    Mourning the loss of taxonomy is a useless endeavor

    Yes, and the rest of that paragraph of realism is only too true.

    It’s not that museums are inappropriate places for a taxonomist to work–exactly the opposite is true (especially if, as is the usual case anymore, the taxonomist also does higher-level systematics). But (for one thing) there used to be a lot more museums (and extensive personal collections), integrated into university biology departments. As noted above, these have been collapsed, consolidated, and even disposed of for decades now as the old guard retires. Very few universities maintain zoological museums (to be clear, I am speaking here not of the public-display parts of a museum but the back-room curated collections) because they are, yes, a direct financial drain but also because hiring a new taxonomist/curator is guaranteeing a relatively un’productive’ faculty line. Besides which, the vast majority of today’s biology students are simply uninterested in the old-fashioned organismologies.

    As Dr. Coyne has described, the metrics for success (getting/keeping/being-promoted-in gainful employment) are a) grant money, b) publications (number and prestige), and (most places) c) teaching and committee work. None of these are commensurate with the sustained, painstaking, time-intensive, ‘inefficient’ work that makes for good taxonomy.

    In some tropical areas with many more species than are described, semi-specialist lay parataxonomists are being trained and used, and should help. A little bit.

  7. How many people are turned off by the sheer contentiousness of the field? “Names and nastiness” and all that.

  8. We live in the information age. I know it is possible to track citations down the line. So when someone uses a database for a publication, the database looks at the data they used and automatically logs the relevant papers. When someone cites a review chapter listing species, it is automatically tracked back to the papers that originally determined the species. There is no reason we can’t keep track of how these taxonomy papers are being used and properly credit the taxonomists who wrote them. I don’t know about databases, but at least for journal articles the data is already there for recent papers and books. It just isn’t being utilized effectively.

    1. Yes – bibliometrics is an increasing field. I know that when it comes to electronically accessed journals the publishers must have a good idea of which articles are repeatedly opened. One wonders if they are unwilling to share that informaytion…?

      More generally, I realize though that funding demands some type of measure but in a civilized society one should have people who are able to pursue what may appear superficially ‘useless’ research, that just increases our understanding of ourselves, our history & our world.

  9. I will not grieve to see all Coca Cola products lost to dustbins of the world, but I think that the common thread here has to to with corporate bottom lines.

    In my own field of medicine, useful but less marketable older drugs are being lost because there is no profit for the big pharmaceutical corps in producing them. The science of medicine is increasingly being directed and advanced in directions that are determined by potential profits not higher principles such as that old-fashioned principle of curiosity.

    In Canada, I cannot get timely access to older drugs like injectable Clonidine (a generic drug with great efficacy in treating cancer pain), because the manufacturer sees no profit value in submitting the drug for proper health authority authorization. Clinical trials for the next block-buster daily dosing statins have millions of dollars available for trial whereas the development of ‘once in a life-time use’, life-saving antibiotics are being ignored.

    Science has benefited greatly from its industry supporters but now as its mistress, has no where to go once its master loses interest in its greatest strengths. I believe that the Universities and the public need to take back the primary sciences as a vital public trust and be willing to pay for it – regardless of its short term profit value.


  10. It is a shame if this indeed the case, I would have thought that taxonomy would be among the coolest careers to study in biological science. You get to discover new species (if you’re lucky)! And then you get to classify them, and in doing so possibly add something to evolutionary theory!

  11. “Departments need grant money to operate.”

    I have sometimes said that academia has given away its soul for 30 pieces of silver.

    Grants are fine, and are to be encouraged. But getting a research grant is its own reward. The universities should never have built that into their internal reward system.

    1. This is a problem that the NSF could fix. Cap overhead costs at some low amount, say 5% or 10%. Put researchers in direct and sole control of the funds.

      Most of the pressure to get grants is due to the fact that universities can siphon grant money as a revenue stream for all kinds of crap not related to the research that is ostensibly being funded. Get rid of that nonsense and you can fund more research more efficiently while reducing the unhealthy obsession with getting money for money’s sake.

  12. Universities supply space, electricity, etc., etc. as well as time in support of research grants. They also use part of the overhead money to fund internal grants to researchers. Overhead is a reasonable and fair idea. How much overhead is a matter for discussion and negotiation. It is common for nonacademic companies to charge 100% overhead plus profit.

  13. There are two publication-related issues that systematically put taxonomists at a disadvantage:

    1. Monographs, revisions, floras and other similar treatments of large geographic or systematic groups are too bulky for the ISI ranked journals, so they get published in book series that publish too few issues to even be included in ISI even if they wanted. So no matter how much “Monograph of the genus Blah” or “Flora of West Palumbia” is cited, these citations will never show up in the Web of Science.

    2. In principle, whenever somebody uses a Latin species name in an ecological, phylogenetic or conservationist publication, they refer to a taxonomic hypothesis. But at least in botany (cannot speak for zoology here), this does not count as a citation of the publication of that species name. E.g., the full name of the common daisy is “Bellis perennis L.”, with “L.” being taxonomic shorthand for a citation of Carolus Linnaeus’ Species Plantarum from 1753, but that book does not appear in the reference list, and so it would not get a citation registered in ISI even if it were a journal. That means that even ISI-ranked taxonomic journals like Novon dedicated to species description get little credit for the use of their output in other publications.

    Then again, of course, there is the problem of colleagues in taxonomy whose dream in life it is to lock themselves in a room with their specimens, publish one book at the end of their career, and consider DNA evidence icky. But there are many more sensible taxonomists out there who, yes, don’t find a job and have a hard time getting grants.

    1. Exactly right. The low citation of taxonomists’ papers means journals that publish taxonomy get lower impact factors, so journals are getting out of it these days. So the research records of taxonomists applying for jobs look poor against the usual measures. I looked up some of the binomials I’ve published. To give one example, the paper has been cited just once, but the binomial has been used in >50 refereed publications (Google Scholar search). I’ve heard that the original paper where Drosophila melanogaster was described has been cited I think about 60 times.

  14. For the question of how will you know which ones to test, the answer really is going to be sequencing and I don’t think that is a bad direction. How much molecular diversity is hidden because populations have been grouped into a ‘species’ based on some gross morphology?

    1. Just sequencing a few samples may not provide the answer. Incomplete lineage sorting, ’nuff said. You would actually have to do a population genetic study and show lack of gene flow, and in principle, in many species you could do the same based on morphological characters.

  15. As a classical taxonomist, I have wanted to make groups of fishes well enough known that I could convince people, with DNA analysis and other modern skills, that my fishes were interesting enough to merit their attention. I am pleased to say I have been fairly successful. Studies of my fishes, well beyond my pay grade, have been, and continue to be, carried out.

  16. I see how some of the traditional morphological techniques of taxonomy may be challenged, but I fail to see how (why?) taxonomists themselves are threatened. It would seem that they would be empowered by DNA sequencing in a new way. For the first time many of those undecipherable family trees will be explained. A little less time breathing formalin fumes would be a good thing.

    Help me understand who these generic taxonomists are (were?). When I graduated from college in the 70s no one I knew called themselves a taxonomist. They were ichthyologists and entomologists, etc. Taxonomy was a subdiscipline of sorts concerning whatever groups of plants or animals your specialized in. Seems like most biologists were a bit taxonomist too.

    1. In a class, the most amusing answer to a question I’d seen was in response to something akin to “Compare and contrast the fields of taxonomy and systematics.” The response was, “Taxonomy is the science of creating endless the confusion that molecular biologists get hired to clean up.”

      I think they’re referring to taxonomists in the morphometics sense of the word, and if that’s so, good riddance. While there’s plenty of to be learnt from that, there’s just as much garbage that comes with it. There’s still people out there measuring teeth and counting scutes, but I for one am glad that’s taken a much smaller role in guiding our taxonomic decision making. Taxonomy still happens, just it’s moved to journals like Molecular Ecology and Heredity.

      Of course, as someone who dabbles in population genetics, I’m horribly biased on the matter.

  17. As much as I love taxonomy, I’m going to mix in some other disciplines into my work so I don’t get too narrowly focused. I’m pretty excited to see where it all takes me.

    And lucky for us, UConn recently renovated their biological collections with really wonderful modern facilities. A big priority has been placed on specimens being kept well (the giant cabinets on wheels are really fun, too), and providing good equipment for researchers and collection workers. It’s like a playground!

  18. During my undergrad (about 12 years ago) in biology, most discussions of taxonomy and taxonomists I heard from grad students and professors were generally disparaging. Either they were mourning the already-lost skills, or they were encouraging undergrads like myself to find something else, anything else, in biology to do that wasn’t describing species. It was viewed as boring, poorly-rewarded work by people lacking the social skills and creativity to do “real” science.

    Later, I met a handful of working taxonomists, people willing to describe themselves as either “systematists” or “taxonomist, specializing in X” (X was aquatic beetles of North America, or vascular plants of cold climates, or small-bodied carnivorous mammals). Their jobs seemed like great fun – plenty of field work in interesting and exotic locations, lots of interaction and cooperation with many different scientists, and the chance for that tiny bit of immortality in species names. But my graduate advisors continued the pattern of discouraging taxonomic work of any kind, and now it feels like it’s too late for me to get any kind of training in such a field.

    When one of the working taxonomists I knew died a couple of years ago, I donated some money to his university with instructions that it be used only to maintain the insect collection he helped establish and to which he contributed a great deal. Now I get emails every so often from that university, almost like I was a real big-shot donor!

    Anyways, long rambling comment aside, I’d like to see support for taxonomy and systematics built into Biology departments – when making hiring decisions, for example, the question “do we have enough taxonomists?” should be asked.

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