I love taxonomy. The fundamental organization of life really appeals to me, as does the evolutionary framework we use for the study of systematics. I have always loved identifying insects, though I was also influenced by the theme of my undergraduate degree: “THE WORLD NEEDS MORE TAXONOMISTS” (Mostly due to one professor of mine. His other mantra was “poke nature”… good advice). And with the noble task of organizing all of life, disagreements inevitably arise. Scientists can get rather attached to their study organisms and their way of thinking. The proliferation of molecular techniques are now shaking up morphology-based taxonomy, bringing about changes that make more sense evolutionarily but are upsetting many scientists.
So here I am, pursuing a graduate degree involving a great deal of taxonomy and systematics (I want to do some “shaking up” of my own, with a mixture of morphology and molecular techniques). This surprises some of my friends, who would rather take semesters full of statistics and quantitative population genetics than think about phylogenetic trees. It works both ways though, I think they are rather nuts.
I am writing a term paper for my systematics class (which will be expanded in my thesis) in which I am reconstructing the taxonomic history of the subfamily Acronictinae. This involves searching through old literature to see how scientists organized these species before, and following the changes up to the present day. If that sounds difficult… yes. Yes it is. The most comprehensive work on this group ever was published in 1898. There are some entomologists in Canada currently working on the taxonomy, and I hope to collaborate more with them, but their work is still in progress.
I am trying to start from the beginning for each genus (and some of the species) involved, which means tracking down papers from the 1700s and 1800s. Luckily many are scanned and published online for free, but some I would have to pay for ($400 for a book? Really?) or are in different languages (I cannot read German, unfortunately). Even in english, though, many papers are difficult to read due to the vernacular of the time. It is tricky to track down spelling changes (accident or a taxonomic reassignment?), and sometimes papers are just impossible to find. Most of the species in Acronictinae were described in the mid-to-late 1800s by a handful of scientists in Europe and the US. Some of these guys took issue with the way their work was used, and they often disagreed on the placement of species and genera. How do I know this? It was not in private letters, but expressed in their publications.
Here are some examples, quotes by A.R. Grote (who described many Acronicta species) about C.V. Riley (a famous entomologist who also worked on Acronicta) (source)
“In the birth of his new species of Acronycta, Mr. C.V. Riley indulges in a burst of wild comparison that betrays rather than conceals his unaquaintance with his subject. In another place Mr. C.V. Riley exhibits a fine sample of that impertenence which has its origin in lack of thought and consideration…”
“I think that the literary Executors of the late lamented Mr. Walsh have cause for an action for piracy against Mr. C.V. Riley for using quotation marks tot he verb eliminate, without due credit to the author of the witticism. But then of course much more valuable property of the deceased is worn and badly worn by our Entomological Elisha.”
Ouch. (For those who don’t know, Elisha in this context means “prophet”).
I still have a ways to go on this journey, but it has been enjoyable so far. Spending half an hour hunting down the citation for a single fact or name change is daunting, yet rewarding. I’m just hoping I stay focused enough to have a rough draft ready by friday!