Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Misconceptions about taxonomy.

I know Gawker is supposed to be a snarky internet publication concerned more with the hipness of it's readers than relaying actual pieces of news, and vertebrate paleontology stories aren't exactly the general subject matter of this blog. But this article by Max Read on a new species of cerotopsid discovered in the basement of the British Museum which calls paleontologists "morons" is pure idiocy, and is a clear example of the public misunderstanding of how new species are discovered.

As I noted recently, natural history collections are repositories for specimens that grow in value over time from information added to these acquisitions by researchers. The true value of any individual specimen is often not revealed until years after it's acquisition. As curators and visiting scientists use the specimen for their research, include it in publications, and use that information to educate the public, the specimen increases in value. Even broken and fragmentary items like the fossil in question are not tossed out, and over time many of these items will end up in "cigar box limbo". What the former curator thought was a few rubbish pieces of a previously described cerotopsid dinosaur was nevertheless saved, and a century later found to represent a new, seemingly intermediate group between the well known Centrosaurus and Styracosaurus.

That this is a common occurrence would no doubt come as a surprise to Mr. Read. Many of the new species described every year are already sitting in the shelves of natural history collections around the world, sometimes for hundreds of years. These specimens are unidentified, or incorrectly identified, or identified as another closely related species. Figuring out which of these are new species is the job of an expert in that group who has the experience to tease out these minor differences and understand their taxonomic meaning. And it may not be until a hundred years after the acquisition till a taxonomist of that caliber comes along. The length of time between taxonomic revisions of a particular group is painfully long, and the number of available experts is spread thin across all the work that needs doing. This problem is called the Taxonomic Impediment, and as curatorial positions are retired and unfilled, the number of groups without experts only increases. What seems moronic to Mr. Read is actually an issue of funding for basic taxonomy, and not a lack of intelligence on the part of the British Museum's curators.

In addition, I don't think the general public understands just how much research goes into describing a new species. First, the researcher in question has to have some sort of expertise in the group so they can actually see that differences that would tip off an undescribed species. This requires years of careful observation; it's not something which can be taught in a classroom. Then the expert often has to examine the type specimens, which usually means travel to at least one distant museum. Finally, after all these tedious comparisons, the taxonomist has to publish the discovery, which requires illustrations, summaries of all the material examined, intense editing, and wrestling with reviewer comments.

The portrayal of the alpha taxonomist as a jungle explorer in pith helmet reaching down to pick up a flower or beetle, hoisting it high and dubbing it "Excaliber arthurius" on the spot is not only wrong, it misrepresents the true difficulty of our science. It makes people think that, well, paleontologists who find new species in their museum basement are morons. Or that throwing money at tropical expeditions is going to somehow, in itself, describe all species on the planet. Or that museums are defunct, musty, and mostly useless artifacts of the past. The truth is that taxonomists are underfunded, understaffed, and being shoved out of the picture by these misconceptions.

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