Brussels, 29 Jul 2003
Taxonomy is not quite extinct, but it is certainly on the endangered list. In a twist of fate, the profession that documents new species of flora and fauna is now doing a head count on itself – and the dwindling numbers do not augur well for a very important profession.
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"Taxonomists' inability to thrive resembles the tales of woe befalling the endangered species they are often called upon to identify," notes Mims. "Thanks to a loss of habitat (on average, the number of university positions reserved for taxonomists halves every year) and a failure to reproduce (no-one wants to get a PhD in a discipline that offers virtually no employment opportunities), taxonomists, and all their art, are slowly going extinct," he adds ironically.
According to the on-line article 'Endangered species – Endangered science', after its peak during the Victorian era, the number of taxonomists has gradually dropped for many decades, but at an alarming rate since the 1950s.
Scientists in the field have called this phenomenon the 'taxonomic impediment'. With a shrinking population of experts capable of documenting the planet's endangered species, the chances are that some smaller, lesser-known species could disappear without our knowledge – not to mention the estimated 87% of all things alive on Earth that have not even been documented.
Not even close
Mims' report outlines several factors causing this troubling decline in taxonomists world-wide, and puts forward a number of possible solutions. Poor organisation perhaps set the scene for its downfall: the early 'species rush' led to a 'hodge podge' of anecdotal accounts of new species that were not – or, without the kind of technology now available – could not accurately be verified. Swedish-born naturalist, Carl Linnaeus, gave taxonomists their first and best tool in the form of his 'binomial system of nomenclature', which we now see in the two-pronged Latin names of all species.
Today, there are between 1.5 and 1.8 million named species in the world, roughly half of which are insects, and only 4,500 species of mammals on record. At the going rate, according to the late biologist, Stephen Gould, it could take some 600 years to complete even a preliminary catalogue of life on Earth.
Compounding the problem, only around 6% of the world's scientists live in the countries containing 80% of the Earth's biodiversity, Mims explains. And those working in the field spend more and more time administering their records, teaching and trying to get grants.
Another challenge identified is how long it takes to train as a taxonomist. Using para-taxonomists to gather the data is one solution being tried by US research centres. Other hindrances to the profession include its negative image as a painstaking and long-winded secondary science, and its poor ability to communicate new discoveries to a wider, non-specialist audience – a problem faced by science across the board, and one at the centre of an EU-led push in 2003.
Although Mims advises against throwing money at the problem, the kind of money set aside through schemes, such as the 'Sustainable development, global change and ecosystems' theme in the EU's Sixth Framework Programme for research, may go some of the way in preventing taxonomy from following in the footsteps of the dodo.