CAREER GUIDES

Here's how taxonomists name and describe all living organisms and fossils

Image: 123RF/Satori.

Taxonomy is the discovering, naming, describing, and classification of all living organisms and fossils.

Taxonomists collect plants, animals, fungi or micro-organisms, study them, and group them according to patterns of variation.

They study these organisms in nature, laboratories, and in museums and herbaria where there are research collections. Several million species of animals and over 325,000 species of plants are presently known.

It is estimated that between a few million and 30 million species await discovery. Many of them are in the sea, and marine taxonomy is a particularly scarce skill in South Africa.

Having the correct name for a plant or animal is essential for accessing information about the species, for using it in any way, for conserving it or for controlling it if it’s a problem species.

Taxonomy is often referred to as a fundamental science because it is so important to all other fields of biology.Topics studied:

  • The scientific basis of classifications, to better understand evolution
  • The ever-changing aspects of nature, such as the processes that lead to the development of new species or the ways that species interact
  • The ways that human beings impact on the environment and on other species
  • The screening of plants for compounds that can be used for drugs (bio-economics)
  • The control of pests and diseases that affect plant and animal crops.

With a shortage of taxonomists around the world, the fields of biodiversity, evolution and conservation hang in the balance.

There is a false impression that taxonomy is old-fashioned, like stamp-collecting, but the field has changed drastically recently and DNA analysis and computer programming are being used to assist in identifying species and for making information accessible on the internet.

Being a taxonomist is both exciting - according to a learned professor, “There’s no greater thrill than being the first human being to knowingly lay eyes on a new life form in the solar system” and rewarding because of the importance of the work.

Taxonomists spend time ‘in the field’, collecting specimens, or in a museum or herbarium studying preserved specimens. They then assess the material in the laboratory or an office.

Microscopes, digital cameras and imaging systems, computers and databases and book resources are used for research. An important part of the research is writing up the results for publication in books or scientific journals.

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