Taxonomy and Systematics: why do they matter?

    During the last weeks we had the incredible opportunity to explore different approaches in biology research. We learned about birds, monkeys, bats, butterflies, plants, fungi… and one fact that caught my attention was that all the researches were driven by evolutionary, ecological and/or conservation general questions. I even wrote a post about how we should not be afraid to think “big” and this is definitely a thinking I want to carry during my entire academic career.

    But what is “to think big”? Do we need to have a general question driven our research to be worth it? What about taxonomy, life history and systematics’ studies? All these questions arose after some talks and were the cause of interesting discussions in our group of students.

    While we were in Bocas del Toro, we explored different aspects of marine biology. During a talk about the “Comparative Development and Life History Diversity in Sipuncula” we were awarded with wonderful pictures, videos and we learned about some hypotheses of the evolutionary history of Sipuncula. Another interesting talk about the evolution of crab eyes gave us a broad perception about this highly diverse group. But, why is this important? Why should we care about characters, morphology, phylogenies and taxonomy of a specific group? What is the point?

    As a former taxonomy and systematics’ student and as a passionate and curious biologist I can’t understand why these two important areas are so neglected. Since the beginning of 1900, biologists gradually have gotten away from taxonomy and systematics and these approaches are often associated with pejorative implications. However, this “phenomenon” has a dangerous outcome. How can we infer general statements if we don’t know with what we are dealing with? How can one propose conservation measures if we can’t identify the organisms of an area? How can one understand the ecological relationships of organisms if they can’t be identified? How can we trace the evolutionary history of important traits if we don’t have a hypothesis of phylogenetic relationships? How can one propose evolutionary patterns without studying different specific cases?

    Taxonomy and systematics studies, as I see, are fundamental in Biology and they should be treated with the respect they deserve. We need to realize that there is no hierarchy inside Biology and different areas need to integrate so we can have a broader and more complete view of life.

There is more than one way to think “big”.

More information:

Bortolus, A. Error cascades in the Biological Sciences: The unwanted consequences of Using Bad Taxonomy in Ecology. Ambio 37, 114-118, 2008.

Disney, H. Hands-on taxonomy. Nature 405: 619, 2000.

Feldman, R.M. and Manning, R.B. Crisis in systematic biology in the ‘‘Age of Biodiversity.’’ J. Paleontol. 66, 157–158.

Godfray, H.C.J. Challenges for taxonomy. Nature 417, 17–19, 2002.

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