Semper Fidelis - Semper Discentes

In Defense of Taxonomy

In Entomology-General on April 2, 2013 at 2:38 pm

        Taxonomy, or so it seems to me, is one of the underrated, and underappreciated, scientific disciplines.  Taxonomists are those poor souls whose contributions involve comparing, describing and identifying faunal and floral specimens, and giving them names.

             I had only limited interest in things biological until approaching middle age, when I, a nearly forty-year-old, married father of four, with a full-time job, decided to return to college in my “off-time”, studying zoology.  The biology department at our local college, Northeast Louisiana University (now the University of Louisiana-Monroe) was heavy on instructors who stressed taxonomic skills, probably to the exclusion of much behavioral and other important aspects of animal life.

            Dr. Neil Douglas, who taught me herpetology, vertebrate zoology, and a couple of other courses, was Louisiana’s “fish guy”.  Even though I didn’t take his ichthyology class, he made sure that the collections we were required to make for his vertebrate class were heavily skewed toward finny specimens.  Capture a lowland gorilla—two points.  Capture a Notropis hubbsi—fifty points.  We caught a LOT of fish.

             Dr. Davis Pritchett was a bit more cosmopolitan in his entomology class, although he, too, required a very extensive insect collection in order to pass the class.  I roamed the fields and forests of northeastern Louisiana with a twenty-something friend, bug net in hand, then labored for hours trying to identify insect families, and was moderately satisfied with the “B” my collection earned.  On the botanical side, the brilliant Dr. R. Dale Thomas taught a more diverse view of the plant world, while being a taxonomic wunderkind himself.  I still have nightmares about the sex lives of gymnosperms.

             I am, I suppose, an impatient sort, and my sorry taxonomic skills suffer for it.  As I plod along through a dichotomous key, I usually come to a complicated couplet, full of technical terms that I don’t understand.  Instead of taking the time to figure out what they key means, I take a wild guess and keep going, leading to some very bizarre conclusions.

             Since becoming interested in insects—primarily dragonflies, but also beetles and a few lepidopterans—I’ve tried to become more patient and systematic.  Nearing sixty, I’ve invested in a rather nice little “bug library” and an inexpensive dissecting microscope.  With the help of some very helpful experts in entomological circles—John Abbott, Dennis Paulson, Steve Hummel, Jim Johnson, George Harp, Steve Krotzer, Kent Fothergill, Berlin Heck, and Kelby Ouchley in the odonatological realm; Ted McRae, Barney Streit, Floyd Shockley, and Kent Fothergill for beetles; and Phillip Koenig and Kent Fothergill for butterflies and moths—my identification skills are SLOWLY improving.  These folks, giants in their own disciplines, many of them authors of standard taxonomic (and other) works, have never hesitated to offer help, advice, and encouragement.  They are a credit to their Buggish Universe.

             Some disparage taxonomists, and faunal collectors, as little more than “stamp collectors”.  I must disagree.  In Birdwatcher, her biography of Roger Tory Peterson, the great naturalist and father of the modern field guide (The Lyons Press, 2008), Elizabeth Rosenthal says, speaking of birdwatching, but applicable to all biological observation:  “The beginning of wisdom, as the Chinese say, is calling things by their right names. (p. 35)”

             Taxonomy does not deserve its status as a scientific stepchild.  In questioning whether observation, the compilation of “life lists” and recognition skills were of significant value, Rosenthal quotes Peterson from his A Field Guide to the BirdsAlthough Peterson is addressing ornithology, I think his comments are germane to any branch of zoology:

 “Old timers minimize the scientific value of this type of bird work.  Truly, it has but little.  Recognition is not the end and aim of ornithology, but is certainly a most fascinating diversion—and a stage through which the person who desires to contribute to our knowledge of ornithology might profitably pass.”  [Emphasis mine.]  (Rosenthal, pp. 34-35).

             My fledgling attempts at observation, collection, and identification of insects—odonates in particular—has fostered a desire to learn more about the behavior, distribution, and lives of these fascinating creatures, damselflies in particular.  My first, and quite simple (albeit time-consuming) project is to attempt to document the presence of Calopteryx maculata, the Ebony jewelwing damselfly, in every one of Missouri’s 114 counties, plus the independent City of Saint Louis.  I’m almost 50% finished, and have already travelled well over 3,000 miles in the quest.  I’m beginning to find myself concentrating more and more on damselflies–beautiful, ubiquitous, and obscenely easy for this old guy to capture, although horribly difficult to identify.  As I gain more knowledge, confidence, and experience, I like to think that I’ll begin to branch out into more detailed studies of their behavior and distribution.

             The scientific contributions of non-professional naturalists certainly pale in comparison with their trained professional counterparts; however, I like to flatter myself that laymen can serve a useful role in assisting, increasing and bolstering the Body of Knowledge through their enthusiasm and (mostly) home-grown skills and education.

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