Taxonomists discover, name and classify species. Each of these may seem simple, but in fact each is more complex, and interesting, than perhaps it sounds.
Discovering new species is sometimes straightforward – a good taxonomist can sometimes recognise a new species instantly just by looking at it.
Perhaps they're on field work and they spot a plant, a beetle or a spider, in a taxonomic group in which they have expertise, and it's immediately obvious that it's new. Or perhaps someone brings a specimen to a museum or herbarium, a taxonomist has a look, and likewise it's immediately obvious to the taxonomist that it's new to science.
Collecting insects and other invertebrates at Olkola, Queensland, during a BushBlitz expedition.
Credit; Gary Cranitch. © Queensland Museum
More usually, however, recognising a species as new requires a great deal of painstaking and detailed work. This may include collecting more specimens or borrowing specimens from other taxonomic collections in Australia or overseas for comparison. It may require detailed genetic studies to confirm or help resolve the new species and other species in the group. Or it may involve very close attention to microscopic details of the morphology, anatomy, ecology or behaviour of the species under study.
And of course, even in the cases where a taxonomist can instantly recognise that a specimen belongs to a previously unknown species, this is only possible because of the substantial experience and knowledge built up over many years of work.
A botanical intern from the Australian National Herbarium's internship program
Photo: Bronwyn Collins © Centre for Australian National Biodiversity Research.
Most taxonomists work in biodiversity collections – scientific collections of specimens in museums, herbaria, or universities. And it's in biodiversity collections that most discoveries are made.
In Australia, our biodiversity collections hold more than 70 million species, of plants, insects, fish, fungi, fossils, birds, seashells, microscopic organisms and many more – representative specimens from all groups of organisms from all over Australia and collected from the earliest days of European exploration to the present.
While many of these specimens represent known, named species, many others are currently un-named. Taxonomists work through the collections, progressively naming the specimens and discovering new species in the process.
One of the specimen stores at the Western Australian Museum, for alcohol-preserved voucher specimens. Specimens in collections like these are a critical resource for understanding our biodiversity.
Credit: Western Australian Museum
Taxonomy is all about making sense of the complex patterns of variation in nature. Taxonomists attempt to distinguish the patterns of natural variation that result from the evolution of species from those patterns that arise for less significant reasons – variation due to seasonal changes or different growth stages of an organism, caused by differing environments where organisms live, or by the random variation inherent in all species caused by minor genetic mutations or developmental circumstances.
Along with the human brain, biodiversity on Earth is one of the most complex systems humans have ever studied. By discerning meaningful patterns from random variation, and by naming species and other taxa based on these discerned patterns of variation, taxonomists lay the foundation that others use to study, conserve, manage, understand and appreciate the natural world.