Taxonomists - who needs them?

Taxonomy is the science of naming living things. As such, it is today a branch of biology, but of course, people have given names to things for tens of thousands of years. Ancient Australian aboriginals used a system, known as songlines, of orally recording not just living things but geographical features. According to Bruce Chatwin: "A man raised in one part of the desert would know its flora and fauna backwards. He knew which plant attracted game. He knew his water. He knew where there were tubers underground. In other words, by naming all the 'things' in his territory, he could always count on survival."

Shakespeare claimed that 'a rose by any other name would smell as sweet'. He was right from the point of view that it is not the name that is important, but the ability to identify the thing. As he would have well known, not all roses do actually smell sweet, so you need a system to differentiate quite specifically, and, ideally, you need a way to communicate that identification accurately and universally.

Here (below) I am surveying for flies in horse dung on the Réserve Naturelle de la Chérine in the Brenne (yes, we are all looking at a big pile of poo...)

The modern scientific way of naming things uses a system developed by the 18th century Swede, Carl Linnaeus. His system has the advantage that it also allows the name to indicate relationships between living things. Each thing has a two part name. The first part of the name is the genus, the second is the specific name. The first part of the name will be shared by a group of species, all very closely related. The specific name is added to create a unique combination that can be applied only to a single species, and is used internationally.  For example:  roses are genus Rosa.  Dog Roses are Rosa canina, whereas Sweet Briar Roses are Rosa rubiginosa. Note the convention of writing the genus name with a capital letter to start, but not the specific name. The whole name is in italics, because scientific names are Latinised Greek words and foreign language words are traditionally expressed in italics in English text.

These two species of rose look very similar. They are both very common in the European countryside. Why do we need to be able to identify them beyond the fact that they are wild roses? The answer is that the more you look, the more complicated it gets and the more you learn. These two species occupy slightly different ecological niches. They attract a slightly different assemblage of insects which depend on them for shelter and food. Each species can be described exactly and given a name. The name acts as a shorthand for the full description.  Whenever I use the name Rosa canina, you can be sure I am talking about a plant that has: 'strong arching stems to 3m, with leaflets that can be hairless or hairy'.  Rosa rubiginosa, on the other hand, is not unlike its cousin, but is: 'less tall and vigorous (to 1.5m), with leaflets and flower stalks covered in brownish sticky gland-bearing apple-scented hairs'.

As a general rule, the more complicated an ecological system is, the more stable it is. Biodiversity is the usual way of measuring how complex an ecology is. The more species, the more complex (and therefore, the more species, the more stable a system is). We humans are struggling to understand how our world works in detail, but we are increasingly aware that there are some problems with the stability of our planet's ecological systems, which has implications for the future of all life, including our own. Taxonomists can help other biologists and ecologists make sense of the complexity by providing names and descriptions of the individual species within the system. The more we understand, the more we can work on solutions.

Many taxonomists work in natural history museums or herbariums, painstakingly cataloguing the vast collections that have been made over the last few centuries (see this video on why these collections are still relevant).  In the last few years, many taxonomists have been engaged in DNA research. They are establishing relationship between species that might not have been obvious before. Others, like me, work in the field, specialising in biological surveying.

If you are a gardener or a naturalist, you are probably regularly frustrated by the activities of taxonomists. Your field guides and gardening books are out of date because species have been renamed. Sorry about that, but these name changes are not made lightly. It's all part of ensuring that the same species is called by the same name everywhere.  Quite a few species have been accidentally named twice, by taxonomists working in different institutions, or many years apart. DNA research is revealing definitive evidence that means species are sometimes not just renamed, but the relationships within whole groups are re-ordered.

It's easy to get involved in taxonomy (although it probably won't be called that).  You can start by identifying and recording the species in your garden, or volunteering to survey for your local nature reserve or national scheme.  Start with the groups that have good field guides, such as birds, butterflies or botany. Join a club so you have access to experts who can help you learn. If you are in France, I would recommend the Biotope guides, and your Conservatoire du Patrimoine Naturel as routes in to the world of biological surveying. You will need to be prepared to be meticulous, and spend time looking at tiny details - counting the bristles on a fly's leg or how many spots a butterfly has on its underwing.  If you are up for the challenge, I would be delighted to hear from you, and help if I can.