Today, March 19th, is Taxonomist Appreciation Day! As a somewhat vocal natural history enthusiast, it seemed within my purview to express some love for taxonomy (the science of describing, classifying, and naming all living things on the basis of shared characteristics and evolutionary history) as well. As explained in the first link above, taxonomy is perhaps more on the decline than natural history, at least in terms of the importance (and funding) it’s accorded, even though all of ecology and evolutionary biology depends upon well-executed taxonomy and natural history.
That said, both of my recent study organisms, Sitana and Anolis, are in some taxonomic flux at the moment, and might not be the best examples to write about*. So I googled “lizard recent discovery” and came across this gem (it was published when I was doing fieldwork and I missed it then, so apologies if this is old news to you): Four new species of California Legless Lizard (Anniella).
An unremarkable title, for sure, but further reading reveals several wonderful things about this paper:
- In the names chosen for their newly described species, Papenfuss and Parham (2013) pay homage to “four natural historians whose contributions to the study of California’s vertebrate biodiversity are an ongoing inspiration for students of natural history and natural history museum curators.” The paper includes brief descriptions of each of these naturalists.**
- The specimens described in this paper were collected over a period of 14 years! The difficulties involved in collecting legless lizards demonstrate the degree of perseverence that can be necessary for good taxonomy: “Anniella species are fossorial [burrowing] and are rarely active on the surface. Many of the sites sampled have no cover to search such as logs, stones, or leaf litter [a standard way to search for reptiles and amphibians is to flip over such cover objects, because these animals like hiding underneath them]. More than 2,000 cover objects (flattened cardboard boxes and pieces of plywood) were placed at localities throughout the range of Anniella in California. Nearly all of the new species described here…were found by raking in sandy soil under cover objects”
One of the new species, Anniella stebbinsi, was discovered in the Los Angeles Airport! To be precise, it was found in the El Segundo Dunes within LAX, also home to one of the last populations of the El Segundo Blue Butterfly. What a win for urban conservation, especially considering that the ranges of all four new Anniella species are under threat due to rapid development.
And these weren’t the only new lizards found in 2013–my quick search also turned up news of an expedition to mountains in the Cape Melville region of Northern Australia that unearthed a leaf-tailed gecko and a skink previously unknown to science. All these discoveries received a lot of press coverage, and even my limited experience with blogging and print media suggests to me that people prefer learning about the natural world through the lenses of taxonomy and natural history than through the lenses of ecology and evolution (though they won’t object to learning the latter via the former). We biologists therefore depend upon taxonomy and natural history not just to conduct our research, but also as routes through which to engage broader audiences. So here’s to the first of many Taxonomist Appreciation Days!
*Working on Sitana has impressed upon me the difficulty of studying organisms whose taxonomy has not been worked out. I’ll write more about this some day.
**Wonderful prose about two of these four naturalists can also be found in Harry Greene’s new memoir+biography+ode to natural history, Tracks and Shadows, which coincidentally, I finished reading today!