Taxonomy matters. Here’s why.

March 19th is Taxonomist Appreciation Day. I don’t think any government has made official pronouncements on that. That’s OK, we’ve got something better — social media. Taxonomist Appreciation Day was the brainchild of Terry McGlynn, an ecologist who understands the critical role that good taxonomy plays in, for example, understanding the ecology of tropical ants. In fact, taxonomy matters in many ways. The problem is that a lot of people, both inside and outside biology,…

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How many people does it take to describe a new species?

The Myth of the Solitary Taxonomist goes a bit like this: Solitary Taxonomist goes away to an exotic place, usually with at least one hazard to life and limb, usually land leeches. Collects a specimen. Recognizes it immediately as a new species. Comes home, writes a Solitary Paper describing the new species. Yes, it happens that way sometimes. But mostly it doesn’t. In my previous post I talked about our latest paper from the lab…

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High fliers: a new paper on some new arctic flies

Many people see the arctic as a pretty barren place, with not much biological diversity. In fact, one of the most well-known patterns in ecology — the latitudinal diversity gradient — incorporates that idea. As you leave the tropics and head north, species diversity drops. Apparently, the flies didn’t get the memo. There are lots of flies in the north. Lots. In fact, some groups of flies are so successful at living in the north…

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Who’s that fly and WHAT is it eating? A new paper from the lab

One of the most widely used products of taxonomy is the identification key. A key allows somebody who isn’t a specialist on a particular group to put a name on an unknown species. At least, that’s how it all works in Dream World. Unfortunately, as a frequently used cliché in taxonomy says: many keys are written by people who don’t need them, for people who can’t use them. In other words, the expert who wrote…

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20 Years in the Professor Game: things I did right and things I did wrong

In late December, 1994 I arrived in Montreal with several boxes of books and papers, most of my belongings, and absolutely no idea what I was getting into. I had a week to unpack, get groceries, become a professor, and plan an undergrad course. I survived that first week, and that first term, and am, somewhat inexplicably, still here at McGill University. Over the course of the past 20 years I’ve done a lot of…

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Spiders with an identity crisis: a new taxonomy paper

Two wolf spiders, whose names are Pardosa lapponica and Pardosa concinna, run across open ground all over northern Canada. Here’s the problem: these two species of spiders live in a lot of the same places, and they look very similar. Katie Sim, a grad student working with Chris Buddle and me here at McGill, asked the obvious question: are these spiders really separate species? Katie’s insights on that question were just published in the journal Zootaxa.…

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Sometimes, a shirt is not just a shirt

In July 1969, I watched, with my family, as the Eagle lunar module touched down on the moon and Neil Armstrong took humanity’s first steps out there. I remember some of the details of that day with great clarity, others not so well. A couple of things that must have been true on that day were: my dad came home from work and hung out on the couch while my mom made dinner; and the…

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Why do I blog about what I blog about?

One of the good things about Twitter is that it’s like a big party where I can wander around and drop in on as many conversations as I want. Most of them are related, on some level, to science and research and education and natural history. One topic I follow is a pretty important one — it’s about how and why scientists communicate, with each other, and with a broader audience outside our usual little…

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The phone, the program, and the big dark room: Twitter at a conference

I wrote a post a little while ago about my first 100 days of Twitter. Sort of a report card from a late adopter. I took another step on the social media stairway last week, when I attended the Ecological Society of America annual meeting in Sacramento, California. it was my first conference since joining Twitter and, in addition to checking out lots of great talks and posters, I decided to check out some of…

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Remembrance of things past: footprints in a log

I spent last week at the annual Ecological Society of America conference in Sacramento, California. It’s a huge gathering of ecologists, and it’s amazingly diverse. Ecology is as big as the planet, and the range of presentations and conversations at the meeting are as big as ecology. I like going. It gets me excited about science, it challenges me and pushes me to understand research that’s unfamiliar to me, and it gives me the chance…

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