Too Many Organisms, Not Enough Scientists

A crisis in taxonomy, the study of identifying species

Too Many Organisms, Not Enough Scientists

Photo by Casey Fox

One persistent challenge for the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory in the Great Smoky Mountains has been finding people to do the basic counting. The expertise to correctly identify dozens of species of a particular organism, or to recognize a new one, is a rare commodity. It turns out that taxonomists, the scientists who specialize in such work, are an endangered species themselves.

Take centipedes, for example. The Smokies are, literally, crawling with them.

“Everybody kind of knows what a centipede is,” says Keith Langdon, the park’s manager of inventory and monitoring. “But the last guy who was an authority on this group died, I don’t know, in the ’80s or something. And the United States doesn’t have somebody who would know these. There are a couple people who are trying to learn them. But it’s not easy to say, oh, we’ll just program a couple thousand dollars to bring in someone, because there isn’t anyone.”

This is a problem that goes well beyond the ATBI. A spate of articles in the science press in recent years has warned of a crisis in taxonomy. Craig McClain, a marine biologist, wrote one last January for Wired, called, “The Mass Extinction of Scientists Who Study Species.” Reached by phone at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center in Durham, N.C., where he is assistant director of science, McClain says taxonomy has simply slipped in prestige over the past few decades.

“It’s not because the science has become not needed or outdated, it’s mainly because it’s become devalued,” he says. “When you describe a species, often that paper’s not very well cited.” Scientific journals, he says, often don’t even require references to species to note the original research that identified them. That’s not just an ego issue—citations are one way labs and universities measure the output of the scientists they employ. A few generations of biologists have gotten the message that taxonomy is not a good route to funding or tenure.

“There are whole phyla of organisms that have only one or two people working on them,” McClain says.

Ernest Bernard is well acquainted with the phenomenon. A nematologist at the University of Tennessee who has been deeply involved with the ATBI, he says he is one of just four scientists in North America who study the small creatures known as springtails. And at 61, he’s the second-youngest.

“We’re operating on a pretty slender thread,” Bernard says. “And the primary reason is that we probably cannot attach direct economic importance and show, the study of these returns how many dollars to the economy. It’s knowledge for knowledge’s sake, for understanding the natural world.”

McClain says the National Science Foundation has tried to address the problem with grants specifically aimed at training new taxonomists. But, he says, “The problem is that none of this was job creation, to use the vernacular of the time. There’s not many jobs. The other thing is that museums have been the traditional homes of taxonomists. In the current financial climate, many of them are shrinking staff or going under.”

But however unsexy and labor-intensive the basic work may be, biologists say it remains vital.

“We do know that without all of these organisms in the soil, leaf litter, the small things, the environment would collapse,” Bernard says.

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