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More Than Just Making Up Names for Animals: Why Taxonomy Matters

That new glow-in-the-dark cockroach isn't only the scariest bug you've ever seen.
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Portrait of adult male Cercopithecus lomamiensis. (PHOTO: MAURICE EMETSHU)

Portrait of adult male Cercopithecus lomamiensis. (PHOTO: MAURICE EMETSHU)

By now you’ve probably seen the slideshows: those monkeys with the human-like gaze, the tiny violets, and those glow-in-the-dark cockroaches that somehow made cockroaches seem even creepier. All of these creatures nabbed spots on the top 10 new species list, announced last week by the International Institute for Species Exploration. Yet, the initial buzz surrounding that dime-sized frog eventually fades away, and we go back to forgetting that taxonomy ever existed. But should we care beyond the weird pictures and funny names?

Quentin Wheeler, the IISE founding director, answers with a resounding “yes.” Only about two million of the estimated 10 to 12 million living species have been identified. (We’re talking plants and animals; microbes are another 20 million-plus story.) And in an era where the rate of species extinction may exceed species discovery, Wheeler reasons that millions of species may not survive the 21st century. So it’s important—urgent, even—to establish a baseline of species to give us the necessary facts to monitor these changes as they happen. Without a major taxonomic initiative, Wheeler told me, “We are literally flying blind into a storm and hoping for a safe landing.”

Taxonomy scratches at one of the oldest itches that humans have: our curiosity to know who we are and why we are that way.

With that unsettling time crunch, the IISE has called for taxonomists around the world to work together to discover 10 million species within the next 50 years. In a workshop Wheeler organized, a group of about 40 scientists, engineers, and scholars decided that, yes, it would be possible. However, to do this, huge adjustments to the methodology of taxonomy and the public opinion surrounding it need to change. Their report, “Mapping the Biosphere: Exploring Species to Understand the Origin, Organization, and Sustainability of Biodiversity," outlines the plan, including an investment in a cyber infrastructure that will connect the taxonomy community with research tools, an attainment of international agreements for open access to scientific collecting, and an increase in funding to allow taxonomists a small support staff and museums the ability to get rid of the enormous backlog of unidentified specimens. Wheeler sees the total government investment required at around $1 billion, which they estimate will be offset by the amount of money saved in annual environmental, economic, and health-related costs associated with 6,5000 invasive species in America. (The U.S. Geological Survey estimates the current costs to be around $130 billion per year.)

Besides creating a baseline of the ever-fragile biosphere, Wheeler says the determination of unknown organisms can open the door of 3.8 billion years of adaptations to engineers and inventors. This is generally called “biomimicry,” and has led paint companies to use the same microstructural principles of large butterflies and lotus leaves to develop non-toxic and mold-resistant paint and scientists to study red deer antlers to learn how to make more resilient materials. Even the luminescent roach of this year’s list reminds us that evolution is boundless in its inventiveness to assure survival.

But the argument for taxonomy Wheeler finds the most motivating goes beyond its influence on inventions or its role in documenting disappearing species. It’s the fact that taxonomy scratches at one of the oldest itches that humans have: our curiosity to know who we are and why we are that way.

“Only with the exploration of species and their evolutionary novelties,” Wheeler claims, “can we hope to truly understand the origin and history of biodiversity of which we are a part.”