Technology leads taxonomists to create better species, not more species

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Meranoplus cryptomys Boudinot & Fisher 2013

Taxonomists live in an age of technological riches. We have digital cameras, high-powered microscopes, DNA sequencers, computers, and boatloads of software for managing data. Each new technology is introduced with some party or other promising that the invention will speed the molasses-like pace of new species descriptions. After all, forests are falling in the name of progress, and if we don’t catalog what lives in them countless species will vanish without our knowing they even existed.

Given the new technology, though, my sense is most taxonomists aren’t using it to pick up the pace. Rather, taxonomists are craftsmen & women at heart. The tools are being used to provide better species, rather than more species. I am reminded of this trend towards thoroughness by a new revision of a small ant genus in Madagascar:

Abstract: The species-level taxonomy of the ant genus Meranoplus F. Smith from Madagascar is revised. Two new species, M. cryptomys sp. n. and sylvarius sp. n. are described from workers and queens; M. mayri Forel, 1910, and M. radamae Forel,  1891, are redescribed, and queens and males for these two species are described for the first time. The first diagnosis of  Meranoplus males for any biogeographic region is provided based on Malagasy species. Illustrated keys to all known  Malagasy castes and species are presented. Diagnoses are given for two species groups: the M. mayri group and the M.  nanus group. The diagnosis of the M. nanus species group from Bolton (1981) is thereby expanded with six new  characters. Two species are known from the M. mayri species group and seven described species are known for the M. nanus species group, including the two new species described herein. The mouthparts, genitalia, and all castes, where  known, of Malagasy Meranoplus are illustrated.

This effort, by Brendon Boudinot (a regular commenter here at Myrmecos, btw) and Brian Fisher, is exemplary. Carefully illustrated right down to dissected genitalia, the monograph is a lesson in good species-level taxonomy.

The revision also clocks in at 40 pages for what amounts to 2 new species and redescriptions of just 2 more. A century ago, 40 pages would have held descriptions of 40 species, albeit many that were synonyms or inadequate for other reasons. While it’s hard to argue with good taxonomy, would accelerating the process be worth doing a slightly worse job in the interest of documenting our vanishing biodiversity?

(note: this is essentially the question asked by David Maddison here).

Boudinot BE, Fisher BL (2013) A taxonomic revision of the Meranoplus F. Smith of Madagascar (Hymenoptera: Formicidae: Myrmicinae) with keys to species and diagnosis of  the males. Zootaxa 3635: 301-339.

4 thoughts on “Technology leads taxonomists to create better species, not more species”

  1. Don’t think it’s not appreciated. As someone who does both systematics and comparative evolutionary biology, I straddle both the taxonomic world and the ‘user-community.’ So, I can tell you, there’s nothing worse than having to rely on a bad species description, or worse, a flawed revision of a large group to know what you’re working with. I understand the imperative to describe yet-undescribed biodiversity rapidly, but doing it badly in the name of speed is ultimately not worth it. I am thankful that there are craftsmen and craftswomen doing it carefully and well.

  2. Thing is, even with the thorough, quality work that Fisher and coauthors do, the group manages to have a higher pace of output in accounting for ant diversity than most others in the field. It would be interesting to line up their pace next to that of Wheeler & Forel, when they were at peak production.

  3. Nice post, Alex! This paper and other papers from Brian Fisher’s group are demonstrating that taxonomy is not only a matter of how much equipment you have, is a matter to know what you need and explore the techniques to achieve the aimed goal. No fancy, no exaggeration in my opinion, just using technology with what it can provide. Your question in the end … I guess technology, if well explored, has also provided us with a better balanced trade-off between a reasonable faster pace and a nice quality taxonomy. But I’m not familiar enough with the field to judge if all taxonomists noticed that.

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