Whats in a Name? Taxonomy in the 21st Century

Posted by Tom Saunders.

Something revolutionary happened in 1735.

A Swedish botanist by the name of Carl Linnaeus forever changed the way humans relate to the living world. He published a manuscript called Systema Naturae, and with it, developed a system called binomial nomenclature. We know this system as the genus and species name that every organism is assigned when their species is described. Since the day of Linnaeus, our view of the living world has widened considerably, as new methods of observation and analysis have opened our eyes to the complexity of life that thrives all around us. We can now see microscopic structures like the variations in beetle genitalia that help to define their species; or we can zoom right out and observe the patterns that structure entire ecosystems, and how each species interacts with one another. But for all of our technological advances, and all of the insight we have gained into the living world, we still face a massive challenge: we know only a fraction of the species that inhabit our planet. Yes, humans have catalogued and described 1.9 million species. But most estimates of the total number of species on earth are between 5-10 million! Over half of these species will be insects, so we’d better get a move on!

The father of Taxonomy.

The father of Taxonomy.

Getting Lusius

I am currently in the process of describing a new species of parasitoid wasp. ‘My’ species is endemic to New Zealand (found nowhere else), although the genus (Lusius) is found all around the world. Very few specimens from this genus have been collected though, and the same is true of the species in New Zealand. The process of describing a species follows a basic template:

  1. Collect specimens or gain access to those that have already been collected.
  2. Establish that the species under consideration is in fact undescribed by comparing it to similar species.
  3. Gather different sorts of data that can form the basis of the description.
  4. Prepare the description, and publish it in a scientific journal.

Sounds deceptively simple, but describing a species can be a lot of work!

I’m currently in the process of step 3. I’ve measured just about every part of the anatomy of 20 specimens that represent the different areas in New Zealand where this species has been captured. I will combine these measurements and some DNA sequences with descriptions of colouration and sculpture to form the description. After it is published, the name will be valid. Here are some images of my species:

9-ovipositor 7-forewing 3-face 1-lateral

Why Describe Species?

Taxonomy (the scientific study of describing, identifying, classifying, and understanding the relationships between living organisms) is the foundation of biology. Without proper species descriptions and names, no one can communicate about living things. The vast biological collections that contain about 3 billion specimens of animals, plants, fungi, and microbes worldwide, are not dusty old cupboards rotting away in museum attics. For from it! They are sites of active research that provide valuable insights into:

  • what species exist, where, and in what numbers
  • what those species may be used for (food, fibre, fuel, medicine)
  • how environmental or anthropic events may be impacting species based on historical collection records
  • how life evolved, how species are related, and where humans fit into the picture

Describing species brings us one step closer to understanding all of these things on a broader scale. In an age characterised by environmental flux and extinction, the need for taxonomy has never been greater.


Tom Saunders is a Master’s student at the Centre for Biodiversity and Biosecurity, within the School of Biological Sciences, at The University of Auckland. He is supervised by Dr Darren Ward (Landcare Research). You can find out more about Tom and his research at TomSaunders.co.nz.

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