Monday, August 24, 2009

The art of naming and recognizing species

There is an article in the New York Times about the decline in number of taxonomists. More generally, the article is about people's increasing disconnect from nature, and especially from recognizing different living things around them. I've seen this first hand and have been surprised, for example, that many of the students in my invert zoology class grew up in CA, but never visited a tidepool before the class. These are people with passion enough for biology to declare it as a major.

As for alpha taxonomy, I've also witnessed the decline in professional prestige for writing species descriptions (see post here). Just last month, two undergraduate students and I discovered a new species of Euphilomedes (ostracod crustacean) on our collecting trip to Panama (the trip is a reason why no posts here for a while). We are thinking of describing it officially. But is this good training for me to teach them how to do this? Will the skills be at all useful in their future?

We were also joking about auctioning naming rights on e-bay. Some taxonomists are against this, but I am all for it.

Yet naming new species CAN actually lead to significant scientific cache. Witness several new species of annelid worms, described in Science. They shoot out green bioluminescent bombs, presumably to distract predators (not unlike the function of bioluminescence in Vargula hilgendorfii).


Christie Lynn said...

Whoa - biology students who haven't been to a tide pool? That's sacrilege!

Ajna said...

The paper even has a sweet little phylogeny showing where the "bombs" originate.

Asyncritus said...

Why do you think the bulk of modern support for evolution comes from test tubes rather than field studies? Is there a shortage of field evidence, or what?

If biology students haven't been to a tide pool, perhaps that's where the trouble begins.

Todd Oakley said...

Asyncritus - I wouldn't say there is a shortage of field evidence for evolution. I would say though that for the past 15 years or so that much of what hits the news is based on "test tube" science, as you suggest. But now that molecular methods are quite mature, I'd say vanguard evolution studies are combining field and sophisticated molecular work.

But yes, I do agree that the disconnect from nature is an impediment to global understanding of evolution. Most professional evolutionists spend quite a bit of time in nature, but not so the average person.