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The Linnean Society and Taxonomy

On September 7, 2018, The Linnean Society held a conference “How Are We Communicating the Importance of Taxonomy and Systematics?”

There’s a plan to do something with Taxonomy here at Botany One, but we’re not clear what. It seems a pretty good rule of thumb that if a science has taxonomists, then the work of those taxonomists doesn’t get the respect it deserves. So something positive would be a good idea. It would be even better if it were more helpful than tweeting a #HugYourTaxonomist hashtag.

To learn more, I went along to the Linnean Society’s one day event at Burlington House: How Are We Communicating the Importance of Taxonomy and Systematics?

Rather than go through my notes one-by-one I’ll try to pull together some of the themes.

I think the first is Taxonomy matters because it’s a scientific endeavour. I think everyone took for granted that we know what taxonomy is. I think a note I had was that it was the process that names a coyote Eatibus anythingus – but that’s probably exactly wrong. The mock linnaean names you get in Roadrunner cartoons are arbitrary, and the names taxonomists give to species are emphatically not. A Rosa by any other name might smell as sweet, but it wouldn’t be a rose.

Something that came up in multiple talks is that when you know the name of a species, you also know some of its context. A coyote Canis latrans is similar to a dog Canis familiaris, that Canis showing they’re in the same genus, but not the same species. The African wild dog Lycaon pictus is one of the Canidae – but that different genus name shows that the dog and coyote are more closely related. If you called an African wild dog Canis pictus then you’re not simply changing a name – you’re also making a statement about how it relates to other species.

Looking at it that way, taxonomy is critical in understanding scientific relationships. It’s a feature that came out in talks by Alistair Culham and Christophe Eizaguirre on how to integrate taxonomy with scientific training. Taxonomy isn’t simply about names, and I wonder if the Linnaean labels we give to species are best described as names. Would it be better to describe them as addresses on the Tree of Life?

Technology came up a few times in the meeting. Multiple entry keys look like they have a lot of potential. The dichotomous key tends to work by moving through branching decisions. Is the subject tall or short? Fat or thin? Spherical or squished… and so on. Multiple entry keys offer the ability to put in a lot of this data at once and easily change parameters if you’re unsure. For example, when does a small pine cone become a large pine cone?

There was also use of multimedia and I’ll embed a couple of sample videos below.

The Linnean Society videos are a way of getting some of the collections of the Society digitised and out where the public can see it. Public access to taxonomy was a feature of some of the museums talks too. Either getting the public out and classifying, identifying in museums where many items are classified by volunteers. Elsewhere inviting the public behind the scenes as school trips, or late-night openings was seen as a great way to enthuse people.

The final talk on Pokémon could have been depressing, “Do people know more Pokémon than real species?”. The answer for children is yes, by the age of eight. But Joe Burton also pointed out that the basic skills and desire to classify were there. It was during this talk that Ray Heaton made a comment that pulled a lot of the other talks together for me. He pointed out that kids used to collect flowers or birds eggs, and they don’t anymore. That’s generally a good thing, but we classify and sort what we collect and we’re not really collecting nature through childhood.

The trips behind the scenes also, in a way, confer ownership of collections. In one talk visitors were encouraged to handle the cases of type specimens. I think Max Barclay noted in his talk, the loss of the museum in Rio recently wasn’t a loss for Brazil – it was a loss for all humanity. This might highlight the power of technology again. Through phones and apps, people could collect species via photos, like in iNaturalist. This might highlight the power of technology again. Through phones and apps, people could collect species via photos, like in iNaturalist.

After listening to the talks, I no longer think that Taxonomy would be a good topic to cover as a project. As far as science goes, Taxonomy is too tightly bound into other scientific practice to hive it off separately. Instead, you could look at Taxonomy and Invasive Species or Taxonomy and Evolution. Biodiversity or Conservation seems a difficult topic to discuss without acknowledging the importance of Taxonomy. Also the importance of the public in recording data and classifying observations seems like a topic worth exploring. So while Taxonomy might not be a suitable subject in itself for blogging, Taxonomy and… could be very fruitful.

Alun Salt

Alun (he/him) is the Producer for Botany One. It's his job to keep the server running. He's not a botanist, but started running into them on a regular basis while working on writing modules for an Interdisciplinary Science course and, later, helping teach mathematics to Biologists. His degrees are in archaeology and ancient history.

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