Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Something wrong with taxonomy

In many areas of life we are used to the idea that productivity tends to increase, as new technologies make things more efficient. So this is one of the things that makes the graph to the left quite surprising. It shows the number of new species described every year, and was based on data compiled by the journal Zoological Record*. Zoological Record scours the published literature and makes an index of all new names they find--the journal estimates it collects about 95% of what is published.

Part of the explanation is, no doubt, that in the last decade there have been large cuts to taxonomy funding. Although this hasn't occurred everywhere in the world. Plus, the numbers of species described every year in 2005, really isn't that different from the late 70s, an era where many would agree was much better for taxonomy support.

So this graph suggests is that taxonomy remains an area that really isn't making any productivity gains of the kind that one would expect in modern science. While DNA is sequenced and stitched together at ever-faster rates, and data analysed, graphed and published at rates inconceivable 15 years ago, taxonomists appear to be doing things at the same rates they always have. Time for change? Some would suggest a renaissance is needed, and that is why a group of scientists met at London Zoo on the 1st March to discuss the modernisation of taxonomy.

*The data were kindly supplied by Nigel Robinson of Zoological Record.