Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Celebrating synonymies in taxonomy

Taxonomists like to celebrate every new species described. If it happens that one described a new species after a famous person or a particular feature of a famous person, then our papers get a lot of media attention, which (trust me) is a good thing.

However, as taxonomists we also tend to propose a lot of synonymies, i.e. recognize that a previously proposed taxon has already been described, or perhaps that it belonged to a different genus, family, or order [yes, once I transferred a taxon from Coleoptera to Dermaptera]. Unfortunately, we do not emphasize synonymies because we see this as just correcting past mistakes or perhaps as a decrease in the number of species for a taxon. The latter argument is of course wrong because synonymies decrease the number of names for a species, and do not produce a net decrease in the number of species. Proposing synonymies is really important in taxonomy because it really helps in making order out of chaos. And do not start me on how much taxonomists contribute to chaos formation...

One of my all-time-favorite papers was written by Vladimir Gusarov while he was a postdoc at the University of Kansas. In that paper Vladimir proposed more than 100 synonymies of aleocharinae rove beetles, cleaning up the mess of aleocharinae taxonomists for the last 200 years.

So, I recently started counting how many synonymies I have proposed. The number (20) is not as impressive as the number of new taxa I have described, but to be honest, I get much greater joy for every new synonymy proposed, than for every new species described.