Taxonomy never stops

It’s hard to tell if this is a misconception about taxonomy as it never seems to even be mentioned conceptually, but I suspect it is one, or at least is never even thought about. Taxonomy quite simply does not stop with the naming of a new species. While this is perhaps the most obvious, and arguably most important, aspect getting a new species named is just the start. Now I’m sure that most readers by now will be familiar with the various arguments about whether or not individual species are valid and genuinely different and the issues caused by different species concepts.

However, the recent post on the problem with undiagnostic types masks a more serious issue. Even the best type specimen and a good solid description and diagnosis is often only the start of a species’ taxonomic identity and work for the taxonomist. Taxonomy never really stops.

We’ll keep things overly simple but imagine we find a new species of a brand new mammalian family. It’s some kind of carnivoran with blue fur and giant fangs. That makes it nice and easy to diagnose – blue, big fangs. Then another new species turns up with is also blue and has no fangs, each is clearly different. But what happens now if we get a light blue one with no fangs and a darker blue one with fangs. These are still different, but our original definitions need to shift to take this new information into account. We can’t just go with ‘blue’ but need ‘light blue’ and ‘medium blue’ and ‘dark blue’. So not only do we need to be careful with the descriptions of our new species, but we also have to revise the definition of the original ones too. So even if they are valid taxa and have good descriptions and types, our definitions need to be corrected in the light of new information. Discovery of alternate colour morphs, tooth variation, other new species etc. will only add the need for more refinements.

And this is why taxonomy never stops. All that new information from ontogeny, variation, new analyses (DNA, interbreeding, behaviour etc.) will help to redefine and refine a species’ identity, and new discoveries of new taxa will complicate this further. All of this must be weaved together correctly and that takes time, skill and a good understanding of the situation. Some surprisingly famous species have poor or out of date or problematic definitions and these only get more complicated as time goes on. Calling something Linheraptor or Limusaurus and everyone agreeing it is new is really the start, not the end.


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