A Fading Field

A Fading Field Traditional taxonomists are an endangered species. Could their unique brand of knowledge disappear, too? By Bob Grant nthony Cognato, an entomologist at Michigan State University, is a bark beetle expert. He's made a career out of collecting, identifying, and classifying the insects—members of the subfamily Scolytinae—that make a living by cultivating fungal gardens in tunnels they bore in dead trees. Even though

By | June 1, 2009

A Fading Field

Traditional taxonomists are an endangered species. Could their unique brand of knowledge disappear, too?

By Bob Grant


nthony Cognato, an entomologist at Michigan State University, is a bark beetle expert. He's made a career out of collecting, identifying, and classifying the insects—members of the subfamily Scolytinae—that make a living by cultivating fungal gardens in tunnels they bore in dead trees. Even though he's an expert in bark beetles, Cognato can still be surprised by the organisms he's devoted his career to studying.

A few years ago, Cognato's graduate student, Jiri Hulcr, spent 18 months in the rainforests of Papua New Guinea, surveying the island's bark beetle fauna across a 1,000-kilometer transect. Hulcr set up three sampling sites, each 500 kilometers apart, by felling trees and waiting for bark beetles to inhabit the dead wood and establish their fungal gardens, called galleries. As he collected beetles, Hulcr began to notice a pattern that he showed to his advisor during Cognato's visit to the field sites. "When you collected this one smaller species, it was always associated with this other larger species," Cognato recalls. "Their galleries were always located right next to each other."

Cognato encouraged Hulcr to collect data on the frequency of this phenomenon, in which the smaller, yellowish species of beetle seemed to bore its tunnel within a centimeter of the larger, long-legged species. "He had the data and it was pretty obvious," Cognato says. "Basically you always found these species together."

With the pattern established, the researchers next sought to get to the bottom of the two beetles' relationship. They hypothesized that the smaller species was somehow leaching off of the larger species by stealing fungi rather than collecting and seeding their own spores. To test their hypothesis, they needed to look at the insects' morphology, so they temporarily set aside the molecular tools that are de rigueur among most biologists, rolled up their sleeves, and used some of the microscopes and dissection tools that have sat in the taxonomic toolbox for centuries.

Back in Cognato's Michigan State University lab, Hulcr dissected hundreds of specimens of the smaller beetle species that he had collected in the field. He dipped their heads in paraffin and made multiple histological slices, looking for specialized fungal spore-carrying structures, called mycangia, that virtually every species of bark beetle harbors in their mandibles. He found none, demonstrating that the smaller species did, in fact, depend on another source for its fungi. To confirm, Hulcr sequenced the DNA of the fungal communities he sampled from the tunnels of both the larger and smaller beetles, and showed they matched. The two taxonomists had identified a completely new ecological phenomenon that they dubbed "mycocleptism," or fungi-stealing. While comparing the DNA of the fungi was an important confirmation of mycocleptism, the scientists would never have spotted the behavior if they hadn't observed it in the field and taken a close look at the insects' morphology.

"You get more out of your systematic studies if you can actually go and collect your organism of interest," Cognato says. "It allows you to observe so much more that you can't observe in a DNA sequence." The subfamily to which these bark beetles belong contains the most commonly imported exotic beetles into the United States, and some species are currently contributing to the decimation of tree populations in the coastal southeast. There is no known control method at the moment, but knowing more about how the beetles make their livings may provide key insights into how to control the pest.

However, there are fewer and fewer biologists who practice traditional taxonomy, or the collection, description, naming and categorization of organisms through intense study of their physical attributes. In general, the field of taxonomy, or systematics as it is often called, has been leaning towards the molecular end of the spectrum since genetic technology matured in the late 1970s and 1980s, and traditional taxonomic skills have been dwindling as older taxonomic experts retire. Many taxonomists blend traditional methods, such as morphological and behavioral study, with modern molecular techniques, such as DNA sequencing, to fully characterize their pet taxa. But taxonomists like Cognato and Hulcr, who rely on fieldwork and morphological study as core aspects of their taxonomic work, appear to be slowly going extinct.

Most children are born taxonomists. Exploring, discovering, and naming the living things in one's environment, whether it's a backyard or a city block, seem to come naturally. Some of the first scientists, such as Aristotle, focused intense efforts on exploring and cataloging the living world around them, and at the height of global exploration from the 15th to 19th centuries, taxonomists were in great demand, as new lands and species were discovered. Other notable Western taxonomists include Ernst Haeckel, Carolus Linnaeus, and Charles Darwin.

A mycocleptic (fungus-stealing) ambrosia beetle Biuncus duodecimspinatus from Papua New Guinea.
Courtesy of Jiri Hulcr

Describing, naming, and preserving new taxonomic groups—specifically using the morphological skills that are traditionally central to the discipline's methodology—is just as important today, as researchers continue to uncover new genera and species in the unexplored corners of the globe. "Taxonomy provides the language of biodiversity," says Quentin Wheeler, an Arizona State University insect taxonomist and dean of that university's college of liberal arts and sciences.

By some estimates, scientists have discovered, described, and named only 6 percent of the planet's species—less than 2 million of the 30 million that exist, at most.

That remaining 94% of species tend to reside in rapidly vanishing ecosystems—biodiversity hotspots—where scores of species likely slip into extinction without ever attracting scientific attention. Research published in 2004 estimated that certain areas on Earth will lose up to 37% of their species by 2050 due to climate change alone.1

The danger is that our planet's biodiversity is disappearing quicker than our accumulated mass of taxonomic expertise can catalog it.

The danger is that our planet's biodiversity is disappearing quicker than our accumulated mass of taxonomic expertise can catalog it. And in order to stop these extinctions, scientists have to understand how the species within each ecosystem live and relate. To fix a clock, you have to know how the individual parts work and interact, says Wheeler—and the same is true for ecosystems.

An ambrosia beetle Hadrodemius globus, male, size: 2.5 mm.
Courtesy of Jiri Hulcr

Despite the importance of taxonomic expertise in the face of such a precarious situation, children these days with an interest in the natural world typically don't grow up to be taxonomists like Haeckel and Linnaeus, but instead study life using PCR, mass spectrometers, and DNA sequencers.

Montgomery Wood, the world's foremost taxonomic expert in a family of globally distributed black flies, spent idle summer days turning over rocks, fording creeks, collecting bird nests, and catching insects. "I had nothing to do in the summer time, and I just chased things," says Wood, 76.

An ambrosia beetle Hadrodemius globus, female, size: 5 mm.
Courtesy of Jiri Hulcr

Growing up on the fringes of London, Ontario, in the 1930s and 40s, Wood's peregrinations were not unusual, but his eye was perhaps keener, his curiosity sharper. Though he may not have realized it then, the young Wood was embarking on a scientific career that would span nearly five decades. He can identify many of family Tachinidae's approximately 10,000 named black fly species by sight. "I'm weak in [the black fly species of] Africa and China," he concedes.

Wood honed expertise in identifying thousands of species of flies the old-fashioned way: through exhaustive examination of the organisms' morphology and natural history. "What made me an expert in Tachinidae was to stay at them for an entire lifetime," he says.

Various views of the male copulatory organ (pedipalp) of the pimoid (family Pimoidae) spider Putaoa huaping, a new species from China.
Drawings by Gustavo Hormiga, reproduced with permission from Zootaxa

Perhaps Wood should have seen the demise of his chosen profession coming. He recalls that when he was starting his PhD work on the taxonomy of Ontario's tachinids in the early 1960s, a fellow biologist at the University of Toronto questioned his decision to enter the field, with the promise of new and exciting technologies and methodologies—namely DNA analysis—poised to revolutionize modern biology. "He didn't say I was wasting my time," Wood remembers, "but he implied that."

"This is not about being modern or crusty or anything. It's about having data." —Gustavo Hormiga

Just like the organisms taxonomists study, the discipline of systematics and biology as a whole was evolving. By the 1980s, the field of systematics, like many other fields, became entranced by the promise of DNA analysis and its ability to decipher genetic codes, enabling taxonomists to look past an animal's skin and into its cells. Walter Judd, a University of Florida botanist, had a front row seat for this evolution in taxonomy. "When the excitement of molecular analyses hit, people started spending a lot of time in the lab," and less in the field, he says. As younger botanists sought to validate molecular analyses as taxonomic tools, they necessarily focused their study on more well-studied plant species, such as Arabidopsis, rather than seeking out undiscovered taxa in the field, according to Judd.

Now older taxonomists like Wood and Judd are retiring from museum and university positions, with institutions tending not to replace them with more taxonomists. The United Kingdom's Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, for example, has not had a gymnosperm taxonomist since the last one there retired in 2006, and has not replaced its last fern specialist, who retired in 2007.

Judd, whose work centers largely on the morphology of tropical flowering plants, says that taxonomic expertise could slip through our fingers in alarmingly short order. "I'm worried that in perhaps a generation or two we'll be in rough shape because there won't be people who know how to use the morphological features" to identify a species.

The primary federal funder of systematic research in the United States is the National Science Foundation. This year, the agency put $2.5 million (0.04% of its total budget) towards a program designed to help experts train young students in taxonomy.

Through the Partnerships for Enhancing Expertise in Taxonomy (PEET) program, graduate students and postdocs of Gustavo Hormiga, a George Washington University spider systematist, learn to observe, measure, and draw their spiders while at the same time studying them with scanning electron microscopy and taking genetic samples to be analyzed for key diagnostic markers. Hormiga strongly encourages his students to complete taxonomic monographs—detailed publications that describe the taxonomy of organismal groups—and compile taxonomic keys, which give other researchers a map to identifying organisms. In this way, Hormiga says, his students are grounded in the traditional methods of taxonomy while utilizing modern methods to extract as much useful information from their specimens as possible. "This is not about being modern or crusty or anything," Hormiga says. "It's about having data."

The PEET program doled out its first round of grants in 1995 in the face of a rapid decline of experts in the field. An NSF survey conducted in the mid-1990s found only 940 systematic biologists working at doctorate-granting institutions, and one quarter of those were only adjunct faculty members. More than 80% of the institutions that responded to the NSF survey said that they would not hire systematists in the future if new positions opened up.2 "There was a strong perception in the scientific community that many of the folks that were doing taxonomics and systematics were getting old and retiring and weren't being replaced by their institutions," according to Scott Snyder, a PEET program officer at NSF. Since its inception, PEET, a biennial program that awards 5-year grants of $750,000 to successful applicants, has helped train hundreds of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in taxonomic science. However, there are indications that the dwindling of taxonomy has reached a point of no return, and even this influx of funding may not be enough to reverse the trend.

(1) Fruiting structures (stromata) of Moelleriella sloaneae. (2) Hypocrella hirsuta and (3) Hypocrella disciformis on dead scale insects or whiteflies on leaves. The fungi have completely covered and consumed the insect. The size of these structures are 2–3 mm in diameter.
© P. Chaverri, Stud. Mycol. 60 (2008)

When Pricila Chaverri arrived at the University of Maryland about a year ago with a PEET grant in hand, she advertised on campus for undergraduate students to work on revising the taxonomy of fungi in the order Hypocreales, which she studies. Herself a graduate of the PEET program, she waited for the expressions of interest to roll in. None came. Frustrated, she changed her advertisement to highlight the fact that students would also learn molecular techniques, such as PCR and DNA sequence analysis, as they sought to fully characterize fungal specimens in her lab. "I got, like, a hundred applications," Chaverri recalls. "And they all wanted to learn molecular biology."

Chaverri realizes that emphasizing the modernity of her research is a surefire way to attract attention from students and funding agencies alike. She's used the tactic so many times that she's begun to wonder about how she herself conducts research. "Sometimes I worry that I'm wasting my time looking at the morphology of fungi," Chaverri sighs, standing in her lab this spring as graduate students peer through microscopes at dead twigs harboring her fungal quarry. "But I like my fungi, so I'm going to keep looking at them."

Looking at her fungi, in fact, led Chaverri to an unprecedented insight into a group of neotropical species that infect scale insects and other agricultural pests. Last year, Chaverri was studying genus Hypocrella, which contained several brightly colored species grouped together based on DNA sequence data. But Chaverri decided to look more closely at the morphology of the sprawling genus, and when she trained her microscope on the ascospores—long, sexual reproductive structures—of the species, she noticed some interesting differences. Some of the species in the genus had large ascospores that could disarticulate into many smaller parts, while others had smaller ascospores that did not disarticulate. Her study of the fungi resulted in the creation of two new genera, Moelleriella (the species with the large, disarticulating ascosporse) and Samuelsia (the species with the smaller ascospores).3

Far from being an arcane taxonomic revision, Chaverri's research may help to improve the way that researchers use particular species of fungi to control agricultural insect pests. For example, using fungi of genus Moelleriella may lead to more effective control of the scale insects or whiteflies that plague citrus growers in Florida, Chaverri says. "One can hypothesize that [Moelleriella] would be more successful on spreading to new trees or insects."

"I think [taxonomy and systematics are] healthy enough in terms of how they're executed. The sickness is that there are no jobs anymore." —Oliver Flint

Though Chaverri has managed to continue her taxonomic work, a 2007 survey by PEET graduates Ingi Agnarsson and Matja Kuntner found that 47% of PEET alumni no longer worked in taxonomy, and a further 9% had positions where taxonomy played only a minor role. In addition, 6% of the PEET program alumni were unemployed when contacted by Agnarsson and Kuntner. And the authors stress that the survey findings are likely overly rosy, because their ability to find and survey PEET graduates in part relied on their closeness to the field of taxonomy—in other words, some of the graduates they couldn't track down are likely so far removed from the field they couldn't be found. Some of the comments recorded by the two authors convey the disconcerting realities facing taxonomists today. "As it is now," one survey respondent wrote, "[PEET] trains students in skills absolutely not required by the job market."

Nearly all the classically trained taxonomists with whom I spoke echoed this sentiment.

Ralph Holzenthal, a University of Minnesota entomologist and caddisfly expert, says that he's been fighting to fund his lab for 3 years, ever since his last round of PEET funding ran out. He once supported six graduate students with two overlapping NSF grants, but now can support only one with money from the NSF. Holzenthal adds that he's in his fourth round of revisions of an NSF grant application to update the taxonomy of caddisflies in Brazil, which are severely understudied. Fewer than 350 species have been recorded in a country that spans 8.5 million square kilometers, and Holzenthal estimates that as many as 850 species await discovery and description in the southeastern corner of Brazil. He says that cataloging these species could ultimately benefit the health of tropical streams and rivers, which are intimately tied to the health and life history of caddisflies in the area.

Jerome Regier, an NSF-funded systematist at the University of Maryland, says that some classical taxonomists need to do a better job of convincing the scientific and funding communities of the importance of cataloguing the world's species before they disappear. "[Taxonomists have] got to interest graduate students in the [scientific] problems that they have. Species descriptions aren't problems as such," Regier says. "It's species loss that's a problem. It's habitat destruction that's a problem. You have to relate your species drawings to those bigger questions. The fact is you've got to get funding to carry this out."

In some sense, administrators are justified in shunning taxonomists when it comes time to hire new faculty. A taxonomist has access to essentially a fraction of a percentage of the NSF budget, while a molecular biologist has at her fingertips the budget from the National Institutes of Health, typically four times larger than the NSF's. "If your objective is just to get a job, you probably shouldn't be in taxonomy at all, molecular or descriptive," said Holzenthal.

James Rodman, a botanist and former NSF program director who was instrumental in creating the PEET program in the mid-1990s, says that the disappearance of traditional taxonomy is only part of a larger problem. "More broadly speaking, organismal biology is dying out," Rodman says, now in semi-retirement as museum research associate at the University of Washington's Burke Museum. He says that colleagues tell him all the time that even in high schools, biology field trips are seldom, if ever, taken—a trend that ripples up through the university level as survey courses in entomology, mycology, and other organismal disciplines cease to exist. "We're no longer interested in knowing about the organisms of the world. That's the sadder tragedy."

Some taxonomists feel that their legacies will live on even though they are retiring and leaving the lifelong studies that often began with an organic fascination in the natural world around them. Ralph Holzenthal's mentor and PhD advisor in the 1980s was Oliver Flint, a curator emeritus at the Smithsonian Institution and a world-class caddisfly expert. Flint says that his lasting appreciation for the field assuages any feelings of loss for the lack of jobs available to traditional taxonomists. "I think [taxonomy and systematics are] healthy enough in terms of how they're executed. The sickness is that there are no jobs anymore."

Monty Wood echoes Flint's sentiment. He says that he has no desire to lament the downfall of the type of taxonomy in which he was trained. "I have thought about it," Wood admits. "But I don't lose any sleep over it. There's nothing I can do about it."

Instead, Wood says that he focuses on studying and preserving as many specimens as possible. Quentin Wheeler, the Arizona State University entomologist who is also director of the newly-created International Institute for Species Exploration, says that he hopes to create a "cyber-infrastructure," including digital images and virtual networks, that will give researchers around the world access to all of the nearly 3 billion biological specimens currently housed at natural history museums. He says that if modern technologies and more funding are successfully combined with continued taxonomic work, taxonomists have a good chance of describing and naming 8 million new species in the next 50 years.

Ironically, the demise of taxonomy and systematics might be attributable to its most fervent champions. "I think in the past there's been a tradition in classical taxonomy that it's OK to isolate yourself from the world to work in the museum," says Regier. "There has to be somewhat of a shift in culture." Indeed, because it formed the bedrock of biology for centuries, taxonomy carries with it a lot of perceptual baggage. "It's hard to get over this image of the systematist being just a stamp collector," says Cognato. But nothing could be further from the truth, he says. "Properly done, [traditional taxonomy] gets you out in the field and discovering many new things that wouldn't have been found without them."

Correction (June 4): The original version of this story mistakenly listed Michigan State University as Ralph Holzenthal's affiliation. Holzenthal is a faculty member at the University of Minnesota. The mistake has been corrected, and The Scientist regrets the error.

Have a comment? Email us at mail@the-scientist.com

1. C. Thomas et al., "Extinction risk from climate change," Nature, 427:145–48, 2004.
2. M. Claridge, "Introducing systematics agenda 2000," Biodivers. Conserv., 4:451–54, 1995.
3. P. Chaverri et al., Studies in Mycology 60: Neotropical Hypocrella (anamorph Aschersonia), Moelleriella, and Samuelsia, Utrecht: Centraalbureau voor Schimmelcultures (CBS), 2008, 68 pp.


Avatar of: Nasir Syed

Nasir Syed

Posts: 1

June 2, 2009

1.These remind me of a 1940 book I found in an old Forest Officer's office in Pakistan "Adventures of a Botanist's wife" that presents a wealth of local Baloch knowledge that may not be easy to collect even today. The botanist husband in his part was very angry with the then forest officers who would just ask the vernacular name of a plant and produce its scientific name. This he termed as the killing of scientific investigation...\n2. I wonder why the authors had left out the many resolutions of the CBD on taxonomy like on the Global Taxonomy Initiative. I wonder if GEF has funded any taxonomy project anywhere. Taxonomy projects would create many jobs indeed.\nMany Regards\nSyed Mahmood Nasir \nPakistan
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

June 2, 2009

This phenomena is not unique to taxonomy, but true to tissue and cellular morphology as well. The number of papers that are published in molecular biology without ever once observing the proteins of interest in the cell or tissue is criminal.

June 2, 2009

I'm not a scientist, but it's articles like this one that keep me coming back to this magazine. \n\nIt seems a good illustration of the on-going struggle between the advantages of deep knowledge of the specialist (probing the mechanistic details) and the broader understanding of generalist (why those details might matter).\n\n

June 3, 2009

Fifteen or so years ago, I was taking certification courses (at that time, the New York State Regents certified various types of 10-course programs) in both field botany and plant systematics. My systematics prof was incredibly exciting -- he wound up leaving the US to pursue post-doc work elsewhere -- and I found the subject totally fascinating.\n\nI applied to and was accepted into a master's program at a nearby university, which worked jointly with the world-renowned botanic garden nearby where I was a certificate student. The first day of class in September, I was told that the masters program in botany / plant taxonomy was cancelled. I could transfer into a general bio program if I wanted.\n\nI was most unhappy. The bio department chair tried to fold me into a different program but I would have none of it. I asked a physics prof friend at the same university and he explained that geology, botany, and similar fields were being shut down so that all the money could go into molecular bio.\n\nBut what about taxonomy? Eh, it's all molecular now, I was told. The human genome project has a lot to answer for. It's beyond astounding -- I just don't have a word for it -- to consider the loss of thousands of years of accumulated knowledge and the accompanying way of thinking.
Avatar of: David Hill

David Hill

Posts: 41

June 3, 2009

The most likely root cause for the decline of academic zoology is the lack of jobs, particularly for those who do careful, detailed observation, and don't want to go with the trendy areas of hypothesis and research that require a lot of funding. Work is shifting outside of the academic environment, even for academics who must wait until they retire to do the studies that they want to do. In spider biology (see http://www.peckhamia.com) we are used to working on the fringes of academia, as it appears that most zoologists and even entomologists do not care for spiders. Just produce a low-cost scanning electron microscope for the general public and there will be a veritable explosion of work on functional morphology, systematics, and behavior in our area, very little of it in the context of the traditional universities in association with formal, paper, "pay for publication" publications! We are starting to see the shift with digital macrophotography. There is also a large, emerging group of naturalists on the Asian rim, with new ways to communicate.
Avatar of: Forrest Mims III

Forrest Mims III

Posts: 1

June 3, 2009

Bob Grant?s piece on the fading of taxonomy (http://www.the-scientist.com/2009/06/1/32/1/) deserves a wide audience while there is still time to salvage what is left. The National Science Foundation should especially acknowledge this serious problem. \n\nWe have entered an era when some molecular biologists seem more interested in extracting DNA from museum specimens than in adding to the collections. A classic example is the destruction of very rare specimens preserved in amber to attempt DNA extraction (Mims, 1993). \n\nFor 7 years I have studied variants of the baldcypress found along Texas Hill Country streams and rivers. Let us go so far as to assume that all baldcypress are the same species: Taxodium distichum, including T. mucronatum, the national tree of Mexico. This leaves the problem of assigning scientific names to the variants of the species, including those I study that have a very different morphology than the common baldcypress. Even the annual growth rings and distribution of tannin in the rings is obviously different. While the old generation of botanists I have consulted is intrigued by these findings, the young generation has a very different view based solely on DNA. \n\nSatellite remote sensing technology can lead to issues analogous to the twilight of taxonomy. For example, a decade ago colorful sunsets accompanied by extended twilights were observed from South Texas. These twilight glows looked much like those that followed the volcanic eruption of Mount Pinatubo and suggested a new aerosol layer in the stratosphere. After I posted these observations on the Internet, two experienced twilight observers were among the respondents who reported seeing the same phenomenon. I then sent an inquiry to a team charged with measuring optical depth from a remote sensing satellite. Their response was that the twilights were probably caused by smoke from Mexican power plants, an impossibility due to the stratospheric altitude suggested by the lengthy duration of the twilights. I suggested to the team that they simply go outdoors to watch the twilights with their own eyes, but persistent sulfate smog over their location blocked their view. \n\nIn the end, the high-tech satellite completely missed the phenomenon. Observations by much older lidars in Cuba and California confirmed the new aerosol layer that was first discovered simply by measuring the duration of twilight glows using unaided eyes and a watch (Mims, et al., 1996).\n\nForrest M. Mims III\nwww.forrestmims.org\nwww.sunandsky.org\ntwitter.com/fmims \n\nReferences:\n\nF. M. Mims III, Save the Amber, Nature 362, 389 (1993).\n\nIbid., et al., Lidar data from Cuba, Germany, and Hawaii; aerosol layer with unknown source, Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network (Atmospheric Effects), http://www.volcano.si.edu/reports/bulletin/contents.cfm?issue=atmospheric, (February 1996).


Posts: 69

June 8, 2009

The relative importance of a subject depends on the perceived benefits and directions for progress available. Taxonomy of quality, when I needed it, was hard to find and is even getting rarer.We had an occasion to work on the problem of the presence of a proto-potassium channel in mammalian sperm which actually turned out to be a pore for non-electrolytes . It took a while to figure out that the dimensions are about the size that admits urea. It took hard work to go through the comparative anatomy to figure out that the role of the channel could be in the migration of aquatic animals to land, wherein the problem is that of concentration of urine since the reproductive tract and urinary tubules would be common at that stage of evolution. The problem I faced with classical taxonomists was that they considered the question not relevant to their studies. I had to fend for myself.\nThen we again accidentally stumbled into the role of alternative oxidase across plant species. Roots never served for transport in the submerged aquatic plants originally and probably only served to anchor the plants at the edge of the flowing waters. Alternative oxidase appeared to be the hopeful monster, developed earlier in evolution ; migration of the aquatic species to water-limiting land became possible since there was an osmo-insensitive respiration ready and waiting! The problem with the plant taxonomists was the same, but less acute. I did get some help.\nProblem became really acute when we were investiating whether ficus trees destroy buildings to settle a bet. In a paper shortly to appear in Current Science, we could show that varieties like Ficus religiosa (FR)grow only on the sides of steep walls, natural(in cracks of basalt) or man-made as in forts, while Ficus bengalensis (FB)grows only on flat land. The association of FR with piles of rock (as it normally grows on the sides of even recently made rock piles) gave a clear idea why FR (the most distinctive among other ficus plants due to its leaf morphology) acquired religious significance. Piles of rock made by man have been for housing, burial and most importantly worship. The Ficus tree under which Buddha got his 'knowledge' by meditation was originally a cult tree! Again the help from plant taxonomists was limited and a biodiversity specialist came to my rescue to validate all our field studies independently.\nWhat appeared to me most significant was that while taxonomy is precious, taxonomists do not seem to be and appear to lead a cloistered existence. This is very discouraging for those of us who have pressing problems based on more current or conventional and current biology. We wondered whether our observations on Ficus were documernted even in early writings as in ancient scriptures. Same problem in classical languages! The man who came to my help was not a Professor in ancient languages, i.e., Sanskrit,who could not be less interested, but a professor of philosophy specializing in logic systems in Indian philosophy, for which he needed to be an expert in Sanskrit.We traced the relevant descriptions to Upanishads which are about 3000 B.C..When we wanted to survey various ancient forts on the West coast to study the Ficus infestation, the archeologists would not raise a finger to help us, but a geographer of the Western Indian escarpment came to help us.\nThe point of I am making is that insulated disciplines die out to lack of cross fertilization and due to isolationism so inherent to these disciplines.We could beat our chest and cry till kingdom come that these sciences are dying. It will be more fruitful, if we identify problems that could be at the centre stage that require these disciplines actively. Isolation is a two way street.

June 8, 2009

It is not just taxonomy but virtually every branch of classical biology is under threat. Ever since interest shifted to molecular level understanding of life processes and tools became available (or invented) for gaining such understanding, more and more people entering biology opted to work in areas like molecular biology, biophysics, and immunology. Interest in classical biology (conventional courses in botany, zoology, entomology, etc.) waned. Today you can see thousands of life scientists who cannot identify many plants, insects and animals and yet can claim to be top ranking life scientists. Faced with this problem, the late Prof. S Krishnaswamy, when he was appointed head of the school of life sciences at the newly created Madurai University (later renamed Madurai kamaraj University), set up a course in integrated biology. After his passing away, the faculty could not work in harmony and a new school of biotechnolgy was created. And yet, there are a few champions left in India who look at all of life sciences as one continuous spectrum. I am told if you ever go walking with Prof. H Y Mohanram he will identify for you every plant and species of grass you come across. \n\n


Posts: 1

June 9, 2009

The pseudoscientists in funding agencies have hijacked Taxonomy Initiatives. Untill last year the initiative was started in Helminthology under Department of Science & Technology, Govt. of India funding. The caucus working behind favoured a few by providing research funds under the programme to a chosen few. But this was a classical example of DST Panel under the programme being headed by the High Powered DST's Committee in which none was actually a Helminthology Taxonomist. As a result, the retired scientists having gone into oblivion now, this programme has been shelved since last one year. Unless and untill such domination by irrelavant people over Taxonomy would end, the future to revive Taxonomist's active work is bleak. Do we really feel nobody is listening to frequent appeals and calls by real Taxonomists to revive the interest in younger scientists? Global Taxonomy Initiative in India is another example. It has again been run in a fashion where chosen few have been favoured AND the outcome is displayed before all of us. Most of the Taxonomists would never even know whom to contact for asking funds to make an application under the programme. The insensitivity of Department of Environment & Forests has made it look like a secretive programme, whose knowledge has not percolated down to real young Indian Taxonomists, who may inject a newer zeal and enthusiasm into Taxonomists' task of collection of samples and interpretation by taking help of senior Taxonomists within the country. This is now clear that mere debate and complaints would not work in a manner that it could receive any worthwhile attention, unless energetic exercises to relieve Taxonomy from the clutches of fund hungry managers is undertaken on a large scale.
Avatar of: Steven Anderson

Steven Anderson

Posts: 9

June 9, 2009

In response to the comments of Dr. Sitaramam, I am sure that narrowly interested taxonomists do exist. However in my experience, those who consider themselves biosystematists or naturalists are the most broadly interested and broadly trained of biologists. To understand the evolution of their taxa, it is necessary to understand not only the morphology, but behavior, geography, paleontology, historical geology, and many other subjects. While not all are formally trained in all of these subjects, they are eager to collaborate with those who are. Those of my aquaintance would be fascinated by Dr. Sitaramam's projects.\n
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 77

June 11, 2009

Sandeep (below) expresses the inevitable problem of the politicization of science - i. e., control of public funds, dedicated to science in general but, diverted by and toward those with the most political influence and, by implication, away from those with less, with little or no consideration for science as a whole. In the U.S. this began with Nixon's War on Cancer of the '70s which diverted much needed money away basic research in the biological sciences and toward a qualified cadre of researchers that was far too few in number, at the time, to efficiently absorb the largess directed their way. In the opening year of the Reagan administration, it was declared that all "social science" was so much junk and not to be publicly funded etc. The hard- and bio-scientists just shrugged because it wasn't their ox being gored but, in the '90s the biological sciences started to feel the political pinch (on genetic engineering and stem-cell research) and bellowed like stuck pigs while the physicists and chemists shrugged while advancing their proposals for bigger and better everything. In the '00s, the latter finally got their comuppance too. The problem, being experienced by taxonomists, has been growing for decades and, in the U.S. at least, is closely associated with political ideology mixed with religious values and the ideology that asserts that everything (including science and its practice) should be governed by the rules of business-economics - with a consequent hard-turn away from basic research and toward projects with (immediate) "benefit to society", usually measured in marketable products. \n\n Vetury (below) describes the basic opportunism of science in "The relative importance of a subject depends on the perceived benefits and directions for progress available." That's debatable. Important to whom? Opportunism is an important part of scientific advance to be sure, but should not be the driver for overall science as science's history amply testifies to the fact that much of what we enjoy today was the product of basic - not for immediate "benefit" - research and especially in the biological sciences. That is, potential benefits perceived in the here and now, should govern smaller endeavors, but not the overall direction that science or its funding should take. In any case, that's too large a question for government "sponsors" to comprehend - or for those with obvious conflicts of interest to objectively evaluate. \n\n What Wheeler, in the article, points out, in the case of taxonomy, is that what is being lost in the move toward "molecular" research is the whole area of study of a specific organism's relationship to its environment and, even, the language for describing that interaction. You can't get that from molecular research and to presume that it is not as important is to deny the importance of "niche" in determination of "molecular expression" in the phenotype which, we have to keep reminding people, is the "type" on which selection operates. \n\n NSF, NIH and NIMH should be restructured to equitably distribute the bulk of their public funds to all legitimate areas and subareas of science and the funding of special cases or "break out" discoveries should be limited to a fixed minor percent of their regular budget with "add on" funding from politicians being allowed for special cases.


Posts: 69

June 12, 2009

The anonymous poster stated , "Vetury (below) describes the basic opportunism of science". My view has been in a sense rebutted by Steven Anderson stating that the useful guys are the naturalists and so on. That was what I was also trying to instantiate. I have some pressing problems of similar, broad interest and I wish some one would contact me. But that rarely happens. I keep looking.\nWhat all I can say as a turncoat clinician who moved over to basic science,even largely to plant research and evolution over the last couple of decades, is that the territorial imperative seems to play a larger role in a scientist's life than in an street dog. What we call a classic today was something contemporary yesterday, music or automobiles, novels or science.Then departments form, heads are appointed, journals are made with clear policies of not publish any thing else than by a small group, for a small group and of a small group... we call it subject loyalty. I have sat through a couple of decades of science administration for project sanctions. The group dynamics are fascinating. Any new idea is ferociously attacked or sidelined, areas of high priority always come from the same groups and brainstorming sessions definitely concentrate on the other end.\nSomewhere in all this, the ability to ask a new question is lost. When I speak of benefit, I necessarily speak of the mind. It is a pity that we ask for money to uphold a subject, rather than ask how the subject is influencing others. There have been debates whether sequencing is research. Somehow, we fail to come to terms with the fact that non-associative, descriptive science, i.e., those in isolation, fail to attract good minds. The scientists in such areas, unless they expand their horizons, are doing signal disservice to the subject they pay obessiance to, more than a dismal government that does not automatically fractionate some money and jobs. What we are left with are views that all environmentalism is anti-development and all patriotism is parochialism and so on. It does not help.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

June 12, 2009

This same fear was expressed 37 years ago by Duane Isley in his article "The Disappearance" Taxon 21. (1): 3-12 (1972). Despite his concerns a wave of students flocked to systematic botany in the early 90?s. Like Lotka-Voltare fluctuations, there is an ebb flow. My daughter and her friends love nature, they talk about plants and animals incessantly. My suspicions are that in 10-15 years after this current cohort of self indulgent students graduate, they will be suceeded by an environmentally conscience group, who love nature over money and again we will see a renewed interest in taxonomy.
Avatar of: Herb Dreyer

Herb Dreyer

Posts: 5

June 13, 2009

The bits and pieces that build the endless scientific detail needed by taxonomy to be taxonomy is now the same with the emergence of molecular biology times ten to the 23 third or so--and both lack integration. This is more true with molecular biology than taxonomy and molecular biology is growing much faster that anyone could imagine: it threatens to loose itself without benefit of any taxonomic integration and seems not to care. \n\nTaxonomy on the other hand, through efforts like the EOL of E.O. Wilson, may save itself and grow.\n\nCertainly molecular biology needs taxonomy--it's a jungle out there--and taxonomy needs the big picture. As for the death of taxonomy consider the death of the periodic chart of the elements--not a chance (and come to think a new element was just added, #112, so it is still building). The periodic chart began as taxonomy began, bits and pieces. It integrated and so must taxonomy as well molecular biology.

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