Systematic biologists, a vital ingredient in the race to identify and protect rare species before they vanish, are themselves a declining academic breed in the United States. A recent survey conducted for the National Science Foundation found that systematics attracts less than half as many students as a decade ago. And an aging population of faculty, many nearing retirement, has left fewer and fewer systematics professors available to train these students.

Systematics, the science of collecting, describing, and classifying organisms and their phylogenetic relationships, was once at the core of any biologist’s education. But that’s no longer the case. The growth of molecular biology has pushed systematists out of the academic mainstream and isolated them in museums and herbaria. Too often, today’s biology students avoid learning about the intricacies of genus and species. At many campuses, plant and animal collections are limping along under the guidance of aging caretakers, while...

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