Taxonomy is annoying

Most of us are aware that all known species have a scientific name. Homo sapiens for man Bufo bufo for the common toad. We may recall from school the various levels of classification. Usually from various mnemonics involving King Phillip.

Wikipedia species articles usually have a nice box with a list of these down the right hand side and as a reader that is all fine. You’ll get the odd oddity like Dendrogramma or HeLA but for the most part they can be ignored as a worthy but not that interesting part of the article. Every now and then someone new discovers that the human article displays our conservation status and finds it funny but thats all well and good.

Behind the scenes the boxes are called taxoboxes. They are built and maintained by smart committed people. That isn’t the problem.

The first problem you encounter is that as soon as you get away from the big obvious mammals the common names tend to refer to more than one species. Usually they can all be lumped into the same genus or family but figuring out where to draw the lines can get messy.

The problem the causes me the most headaches is how unstable this all is. Again from distantly remembered school lessons these taxonomic rankings seem pretty settled. If you dip your toe into the area while sticking to mammals that seems to be pretty much the case. A few arguments over subspecies, a few question marks over the correct term for sperm whales due to a mistake in the 18th century. Nothing critical. Anywhere else though biologists apparently feel free to publish papers that completely rewrite these taxonomic relationships. Thought your genus was settled? Ha. No we are going to shift it to a completely different superfamily. Something being sitting their quite happily for the best part of a century? Err 3 papers in a year turn up showing its wrong but they can’t agree on what is correct. Want to keep track of all this? Just be sure to read everything published in the field much of which is behind pay walls. Yes maybe there is someone with a Phd and enough time to keep track of all this but for anyone else? Good luck with that.

If you do somehow manage to keep track of this (how?) you’ve then along comes phylogenetic nomenclature with a completely different take on how things should be done.

Look I’m not blaming biologists here. From what I can tell the rise of DNA sequencing and computer databases has heavily revitalised the field and due to the fairly limited number of people working in it it may be some decades before everything settles down a bit. In the meantime we may need to add a warning tag to taxoboxes that this is only an approximation of what is going on.

What brought this on? Cone snails. A fairly harmless paper which looked at extinct snail shells under ultra violet light to observe patterning. They describe cone snails as being one of four genera Profundiconus, Californiconus, and Conasprella, and Conus. So okey I go off to create the disambiguation page (which aparently should have been a set index article). Turns out that there are two competing family names that cover the common name cone snail. Conidae and Coninae. Fine hopefully biologists will come to an agreement at some point. There’s also the superfamily Conoidea but there seem to be a bunch of arguments over its membership. Finally there is the Genus Telescopium which may or may not be known as cone snails (the internet seems to think so though) but aren’t related to the others below the level of the class Gastropoda (they are all snails).

So yeah annoying. And much as I’d like to we can’t just pretend this stuff doesn’t exist for 20-30 years until the apparent revolution in taxonomy has sorted itself out.

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1 Response to Taxonomy is annoying

  1. nemobis says:

    Great post, loved reading it. Next time I’ll use snails as an example of articles where recentism is a great danger and everything should be frozen for a few decades!

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