Are reports of the death of taxonomy an exaggeration?


(tel +1 480 965 2975; email

‘The report of my death was an exaggeration.’

(Mark Twain, New York Journal, 2 June 1897)

Opinions about the state of taxonomy are many, whereas reliable facts are few. The latest controversy arises from a conclusion that an increase in the number of authors of papers describing new species is evidence that taxonomy is doing well (Costello et al., 2012, 2013a,b), a claim that could be reinforced if the rate of plant discoveries has really been accelerating (Joppa et al., 2011). As a taxonomist who has witnessed the steady hemorrhaging of prestige, funding and positions from taxonomy for more than three decades, I find this claim preposterous, dangerous and complacent: preposterous, because adverts seeking to hire taxonomists to do taxonomy and grants to do taxonomy for its own sake are essentially nonexistent; dangerous, because unless we acknowledge that an independent and curiosity-driven taxonomy is in crisis, we are unlikely to make the investments and changes required to revive it; complacent, because taxonomic knowledge is essential to effectively confront the wholesale loss of biodiversity and the first serious threat of a mass extinction event in 65 million yr (Barnosky et al., 2011). Thus, the paper by Bebber et al. in this issue of New Phytologist (pp. 700–706), tapping one of the most complete taxonomic databases to determine what actual trends exist and what they might mean, is a timely and welcomed introduction of facts, critical analysis and common sense to the argument.

‘… merely naming one or a few species does not a taxonomist make.’

An alarming decline in the representation of taxonomy in university curricula and faculty was evident by the end of the 1980s (Schrock, 1989; Wheeler, 1995, 2004, 2008) and there is no indisputable evidence that things have improved since, in spite of wide recognition of the problem and its implications (NSB, 1989; House of Lords, 1992, 2002, 2008; SA2000, 1994; Hopkins & Freckleton, 2002; McClain, 2011; Wheeler et al., 2012). Even in natural history museums, traditional centers of excellence for taxonomy, few curators or researchers are hired with the charge and expectation of pursuing taxonomy full time. The fact that leaders of academic and research institutions are increasingly judged by how much money they bring in rather than how much knowledge they produce has been particularly damaging to taxonomy that has few sources of grants.

Proclamations of the collapsed or improving state of taxonomy will ring true, or not, depending in large part on what you believe is or is not taxonomy. There are those who regard DNA-based phylogenetic analyses and DNA barcoding as the new incarnation of taxonomy or single path to its future (e.g. Tautz et al., 2003; but see Lipscomb et al., 2003), but I am not among them. Identifying species, conducting cladistic analyses, and retrieving information are all important parts of taxonomy, of course, but taxonomy is much more. Ultimately, taxonomy's exploration of homologous characters, species, and clades results in a detailed, comprehensive overview of the origins, diversification and 3.8 billion-yr-history of life summarized in a phylogenetic classification and associated Linnaean names. Understanding even a single taxonomic character, often dismissed as ‘merely descriptive’, involves a rich context of theory, background assumptions, and testable hypotheses (Platnick, 1979). Understanding the history of evolution even more so.

That the rate at which new species are named has remained more or less constant is a testament to the dedication of the few remaining paid taxonomists, the perseverance in naming species by would-be taxonomists diverting their energy into experimental work to secure grants, and amateur taxon scholars who have stepped up to help fill the gap. Given the growth of science and advances in technology after World War II, the stagnant rate of species discoveries since the 1940s is hardly evidence of the wellbeing of the discipline. Nor is it a sign that we are approaching full knowledge of our planet's species for more than a small number of higher taxa (Chapman, 2009; Wheeler et al., 2012).

Bebber et al. set out to determine whether the pace of plant species discovery has truly accelerated, whether the number of authors associated with species descriptions has increased, and what this all may mean. They tap data from the International Plant Names Index (IPNI), one of the most complete sources of data of its kind. And while their data are botanical, the questions are general ones (e.g. Tancoigne & Dubois, 2013).

Bebber et al. conclude that the number of plant species named annually did not significantly increase between 1970 and 2011. While the reported increase in numbers of authors is a real phenomenon, it is correlated with a decrease in the average number of species per author and does not warrant the conclusion that taxonomy is doing better than thought or that numbers of taxonomists are growing. Most of the increase in author numbers is associated with papers naming one or a few (< 10) new species. Importantly, over the same time period there has been an increase in numbers of authors in science generally. As Bebber et al. point out, the rise in author numbers no doubt reflects in part a growing trend to better credit students, technicians, and others involved in one stage or another of species discovery.

From existing data it is difficult to say just how many authors are or are not professional taxonomists, or taxonomists at all for that matter. The proportion of species named by amateurs will likely increase until the fortunes of professional taxonomy are reversed, as will those by nontaxonomist biologists, desperate for names and forced to describe species themselves or do without. Costello et al. (2013b) define a taxonomist broadly to include anyone who names a species. My publishing of a few plant hosts of insects does not qualify me as an ecologist and merely naming one or a few species does not a taxonomist make. Horribly subjective and hopelessly inapplicable, perhaps the best indicator of a taxonomist is intent. If the focus of your work is to make as many species of a clade known as possible, to carefully interpret and analyze the transformational history of as many of its homologous characters as possible, to study and master all taxonomic literature on a group since 1753, to apply informative names, and to ultimately build a phylogenetic classification summarizing all that is known of a taxon, then you are unquestionably a taxonomist. Without such a consuming taxon-focused interest, driven primarily by curiosity about the evolution and diversity of a clade, there is room for doubt. This is not to say that there is no place for casual contributions to taxonomy but that the realization of the inspiring vision of taxonomy as an evolutionary and environmental science requires also professional experts and infrastructure.

The gold standard in taxonomic work remains the revision, monograph, or flora in which all species of a higher taxon are simultaneously compared and tested, accumulated material in herbaria identified, and, not infrequently, large numbers of new species discovered. Such broadly comparative taxonomic publications, however, were not seen to be increasing in number. It is difficult to imagine taxonomy truly flourishing without a measurable increase in their production.

The need for serious descriptive taxonomy is undiminished. It is through careful, thorough, competent descriptive taxonomy that the most fascinating details of evolutionary history are revealed and the billions of ways in which organisms are adapted for survival are opened to exploitation in our quest for sustainable ways to meet human needs. That the backlog of undescribed species, perhaps numbering 10 million for eukaryotes alone, is confronted, homologies interpreted, classifications made predictive, and names kept informative matters a great deal in the face of a biodiversity crisis. Falsely concluding that taxonomy is doing fine at a time when it is denied recognition, funding, positions and modernized infrastructure is the making of a great and consequential scientific tragedy. Thoughtful studies like that of Bebber et al. may save us from ourselves just in time.