Become a taxonomist today!

At 630 AM, I excitedly announced that it was taxonomist appreciation day today.  My family looked at me with a touch of curiosity, but mostly bewilderment. Huh?  These looks caused me to launch into a rant about the importance of taxonomy (over coffee, cereal, spilled milk, and amongst the panic of lunch preparation in our tiny kitchen- perhaps a little much for my bleary-eyed teenage son....)

Taxonomists are the most amazing scientists!  They describe species and give them names! They increase our knowledge about biodiversity! WE NEED taxonomists as we continue to face a biodiversity crisis! (and on and on...)

(um, I realize that I'm mostly preaching to the choir with this blog, and especially regarding the need to increase research focus on the biodiversity of insects and spiders)

Today I want to suggest something a little bit different, and highlight an amazing project out of North Carolina State University's Insect Museum as a way to increase enthusiasm about taxonomy and what it might mean to be a taxonomist. This project's goal is to open up a research-based insect collection to the world through the use of "gigapan" images of each drawer within the collection ("gigapan" refers to high resolution panoramic images of amazing things and places, thus allowing you to zoom in and enjoy everything from cityscapes to forests in Costa Rica). With the Insect Museum's gigapans, You can virtually visit thousands of specimens, zoom in on a specimen, zoom in on a label. You can see where these insects were collected, when, and can appreciate their names, shapes and sizes. Their ENTIRE collection is available for your to view - it's an amazing way to enter an insect collection from anywhere in the world. This entire project was published by Matt Bertone and colleagues, a couple of years  ago (by the way, I do hope other collections follow NCState's example)

A gigapan image of a student insect collection at NC State.

A gigapan image of a student insect collection at NC State Insect Museum.

Thanks to these efforts, I offer a challenge: become a taxonomist today! As you pull out your lunch (or as you eat your dinner...), scan a few of these images and gain an appreciate about what taxonomists are faced with. Select one drawer and spend a few minutes thinking about similarities and differences among the species - where is there variation? Why does this variation exist? Were all the specimens collected in a similar habitat, or geographic region? Why or why not? If you have limited knowledge about a particular family of beetles, for example, as you view and appreciate the collection, your knowledge base will increase, and you will become a better taxonomist relative to when you started munching on your sandwich.  To me, this is an ideal way to really recognize taxonomist appreciation day. And heck, maybe this will even inspire some people to take an insect taxonomy course, or visit their local entomology museum, and get drawn into this fascinating and critically important field of study.

Here's a drawer of long-horned beetles (Cerambycidae)

Here's a drawer of long-horned beetles (Cerambycidae)

As an footnote, I have pretty serious envy of taxonomists. In part this comes from my academic training - when I was a senior undergraduate, I was introduced to the field of entomology through one of the best taxonomists, Dr. Steve Marshall, at the University of Guelph. However, by that time I was already on the road to becoming an ecologist, and thus learned the importance of taxonomy too late to enter that field of study.  Ever since then, I've been in awe of taxonomy and taxonomists. On a related note, this may be why I'm fascinated by natural history, since natural history and taxonomy are closely linked. 


M. Bertone et al. (2012). Results and insights from the NCSU Insect Museum GigaPan project. ZooKeys

4 Responses to “Become a taxonomist today!”

  1. Lee Penner Reply | Permalink

    "or visit their local entomology museum". Ah, you must be speaking strictly to students.

    As a lowly commoner, I can't get permission to step foot into any entomological related establishment across Canada. I've never even seen an insect collection.

    • Christopher Buddle Reply | Permalink

      Hi Lee - and thanks for the comment. No, I'm speaking to everyone! You should be able to call up a museum and ask to speak to their curator, and ask to come for a visit. Although many research museums are not 'open' to the public, they are certainly accessible. If ever you are in the Montreal area and wish to see the Lyman entomology museum, let me know and I can help facilitate a visit.

  2. Spencer Reply | Permalink

    Interesting; I learned the importance of taxonomy in the final year of my undergrad, and now I'm the world's expert on an entire subgenus! Gee, that does not sound as impressive as I'd hoped, but all the same..

    Lee - have you asked to? Most taxonomists are excited and eager to share what they do. For example, the CNC at the Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa is a friendly place - I'm sure if you got in touch with somebody there, they'd be happy to show you around!

  3. Lee Penner Reply | Permalink

    My ‘local entomology museum’ is 3 hours away in Guelph, ON. No access unless there is a party of at least 10 people. I tried.
    Next closest is Ottawa (10 hours away). The Museum of Natural History had 21 insects on display; 18 foreign and 3 from Canada – all butterflies, 2 of which were on loan.
    I tried the CNC. They didn’t respond to my e-mail.
    Tried the insect museum in Montreal a couple of years ago – closed for renovations.

    My point is: It’s not easy to ‘visit a local entomology museum’. As a taxpayer funded institution, they should at least have walk-in access and a sample of a pinned collection available for the general public.

    My trip to Quebec was not pleasant. I don’t speak their language. But, if I ever decide to go back, I’ll look you up Chris. Thanks.

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