24 August 2011

Taxonomy in decline or growth?

ResearchBlogging.orgEarlier this year, Craig McClain from Deep Sea News wrote an editorial at Wired arguing that taxonomy as a scientific discipline was “going extinct.”

A short new paper challenges that view.

Joppa and colleagues looked at taxonomic research on cone snails (pictured), spiders, amphibians, birds, reptiles, and mammals. The number of taxonomists studying each group has gone up in every case, not down.

The number of species being described is also going up, but it is actually not keeping up with the growth of taxnomists: the average number of new species described by each taxonomist is getting smaller. It’s also noteworthy that taxonomists are not working alone, contrary to popular conceptions of expertise for whole groups being locked in the head of single individuals.

Can the perception of taxonomy as a discipline in decline be reconciled with the data? First, the data only goes to 2000. A lot has changed in ten years, though I don’t know if it has changed that much. Second, the authors suggest that taxonomy in North America and Europe might be running counter to a global trend: declining here while growing in the rest of the world.

Another idea I have that might explain the discrepancy is that there is no control group. The number of taxonomists may be increasing, but how does it compare to other disciplines in biology? I suspect that there has been healthy growth of biological sciences as a whole, and that while the number of taxonomists may have increased “exponentially” (as described by Joppa and colleagues), other fields, like cell and molecular biology, have increased even more exponentially. (Mathematicians, don’t bug me if that is a meaningless phrase.)


Joppa L, Roberts D, & Pimm S (2011). The population ecology and social behaviour of taxonomists Trends in Ecology & Evolution DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2011.07.010

Photo by richard ling on Flickr; used under Creative Commons license.

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