Thursday, March 19, 2015

Five Things you live with as a Taxonomist! Taxonomist Appreciation Day!

What are taxonomists? 
Simply put, taxonomy is the subsection of biology that deals with assigning names to biological entities and arranging them in an orderly "system." Usually in describing new species or even new genera, families or higher depending on what you work on. 

Many names apply and different scientists focus on different areas of expertise: Systematist, evolutionary biologist, invertebrate zoologist, marine biologist, paleontologist, systematic biologist, entomologist, botanist, protistologist, herpetologist, etc., etc. 

Arrangements of organisms are known as classifications which are dictated primarily by the evolutionary relationships of the organisms in they single celled amoebas, fungus, plants, or any number of animals..starfish, cats, water bears, fish, dinosaurs, etc. 

BUT the first part of that process is to figure out exactly WHICH species you are studying. What phylum of worm? What kind of single celled animal? What kind of plant?  Out of the hundreds to millions of known and unknown species in the world??  

Some species are well known, but others, especially those that live in poorly studied or out of the way habitats: the deep-sea, the distant tropics or even the microfauna and flora of your local pond these can be highly varied and you need a specialist to tell you what they are..(if you can't figure it out yourself!)

It was said for magic that knowing a demon or magical creature's name gave you power over it. This is the same for our knowledge of organisms. Knowing which genus, species, family, etc. allows you access to all the previously known knowledge about it. 

Do we have hundreds of articles on its biology? Or is it something completely unknown?


What do I do??
Even though I know a little bit about everything, my expertise focuses primarily on the diversity of sea stars, especially those in the deep-sea but you can read about me here.  There are other scientists who work on sea stars of course. Marine biologists, paleontologists, ecologists, and so on..  But at the moment, I am one of the only people who specializes in the evolution and identification of living sea stars (aka starfish or asteroids).

So, that's my bias.   

That said, I've been doing this for awhile now so here's a five ups and downs that I think I've experienced in my career as a taxonomist/biologist/paleontologist/whatever that I thought might provide some insight into why you should support a taxonomist (and taxonomy!)

As a taxonomist, these are dynamics that one comes to accept as part of the profession. They are challenges and we always hope that things will be better. But for the moment, this is how they are.. Most folks in the taxonomy field live with these things every day.

These are my opinions/perceptions and not the perspective of any organization I am affiliated with. 

1.  Taxonomy is biological infrastructure: everybody wants/needs what you offer but its often (still) professionally taken for granted.

For many decades, taxonomy was considered as almost a service to the rest of the scientific community. Say, you had some scientific study X, that focused on a weird deep-sea worm..but you didn't know what it was!!  Send it off to the local museum. Or to the Smithsonian or wherever.
They would often identify these things (and yes, of course for free) and there was not even a suggestion that the name of the taxonomist would be included anywhere but in the acknowledgements.

So, the scientists were held in high regard but never got full credit.
This happened to me a lot early in my career. but not any more...

TODAY, I usually insist on co-authorship on anything that involves a significant amount of work. Credit where credit is due.  

But, its still commonplace for papers that use one or many species to omit the name of the scientist (or whomever) who described it in the paper's references.

Its often convention to list the author and date of description after the species name, especially if it was described recently (i.e., in the last 50 years or so). This is usually done only in formal taxonomic papers. But in journals which use taxonomy outside of "formal" use (e.g., in ecology, physiology, etc.), its not unusual for the author and date to not be cited and the reference (and thus the credit) for scientific papers is denied to taxonomists. Thus lowering their status in the scientific community. This paper documents this issue. 

2. You get to travel.....but then spend months to years writing up the results

This is a good problem to have. Being a taxonomist has taken me all over the world and to the bottom of two oceans. You've seen my travel posts about working in Japan, Paris and out on ships to the middle of the North Pacific among the many places I've experienced and shared on the blog.

BUT these trips last for only so long. The exotic adventure stuff gets balanced by the more mundane preparation and wrap up. Some expeditions or even just museum trips take months to YEARS to completely "finish".
Why?  Most day to day work involves a lot of standard office work. Papers have to be written. Specimens have to be cataloged. Reports have to be made on the expeditions. Receipts have to be tallied. Meetings and responsibilites have to be met. Sometimes classes have to be taught.  For new trips.. proposals have to be written and logistics have to be made. 

So yes. cool things to be done and seen but a lot of the time. Work. Meetings. Etc. 

3. Most discoveries happen in museums....

I've written about this dynamic in past posts (here). Some specimens await discovery for decades before being found by someone who writes it up. On average this turns out to be about 21 years from the time the specimen is discovered until the paper is published..

As much as I've gone to sea and travelled to exotic places, I find the most number of new discoveries in buckets and jars of preserved specimens.

The museum is practically the HABITAT for the taxonomist. So, like any endangered species, one needs to save it to save the species!  If you support natural history and taxonomy, support the museum!! 

A lot of museums with natural history collections have also been struggling. Funding is almost always below what is necessary to maintain a collection at optimal levels. Other challenges to museums I've observed

  • Space! So many jars, specimens, etc. fit into a storage room and real estate can be expensive. Universities and private collectors are prone to give up their collections, which often end up at museums overwhelming the in-house resources.
  • Personnel! People are one of the most important ingredients to a good museum collection. Specimens require upkeep. They have to be cataloged. Shipped. Mailed. Received. Sorted. Some materials are protected by law. Training museum professionals is now its own field separate from what scientists do. Collection management is a challenge.
  • Resources! Specimens require material. Jars. Archival storage boxes. Tissue samples require freezers. Shelving. The list goes on. Individually, some of the items may not cost much..but remember these are used at a pretty regular clip.                                

and.. the resources above speak NOTHING of research materials.... DNA labs, microscopes, computers, etc. etc. which is another matter entirely.

4.  You belong to a small community which is growing smaller 
In this regard, taxonomy isn't all that much different from other academic fields or even other professional or business fields with a very specific focus.

Most taxonomists are unique experts in their group. As I said above, I am one of the world's only practicing taxonomists specializing in living sea stars (there are paleontologists around though). In the early 20th Century there were up to 5 to 7 sea star experts at any given time. Yes. there are people who work on regional faunas (i.e. starfishes of island X) but folks who work on all of them? That's me. 

For marine invertebrates, there is a perception that there is a serious lack of taxonomic expertise which I think bears some concern. You do get students who train and get degrees, but not a lot of jobs or positions are available. Some of us have gotten by but I've seen many of my gifted colleagues move on to other fields for lack of a stable position.

I've always seen the demand from other fields (ecology, physiology, oceanography etc.)  for MORE people who can ID or describe the "creature X" that they collected, etc.. but "Nobody works on those any more, since Dr. Y died..."

Which is a segue to...

5. There are new discoveries to be made!! but where are the jobs?
There are many places where you can read about the "Biodiversity Crisis" and the corresponding "extinction of taxonomists". Wired did a nice bit on it here. 

One of the things I always clarify to folks is that even though there's always something to DO, there's not always someone who will hire you to do it. 

I love what I do. But I don't have a "proper job" (I get by on soft money and other funds) but I feel compelled to continue (and I continue to hope!). My career is a good one but I've been lucky. Its a difficult field to survive in.

So, yes. There's an avalanche of undescribed species awaiting description! But whether you are a classical (but modern!) taxonomist like me, a person working on protists, or a barcoding guru, these are all pretty specialized positions. And getting a job doing what we're trained for is, at best difficult.

What happens when the last person working on a big or important group retires or dies?

There's been an unfortunate decline in jobs for taxonomists in recent years. This seems to accompany the various funding issues which accompany universities which have shifted their emphasis away from programs focusing on general knowledge.

Many reasons have been offered for this decline but ultimately I think the best I can do to support future generations and my other colleagues is to continue my outreach and shed a light on the challenges faced and why supporting taxonomists is worthwhile!

At this point, someone will bring up privatization or "Why don't you charge people for what you do?" And yes. Its crossed my mind..but that's a discussion for another post..


Cecily said...

The kind of outreach you do on this blog HAS to be good for the taxonomists' future Chris! Fantastic stuff.

ChrisM said...

thanks Cecily for the kind words!