Taxonomy is the classification of living things into groups like species, families or orders. We classify things all the time if you think about it- I put my underwear in one drawer and my woolly hats in another. Likewise, taxonomy is science’s attempt to put nature into order. Not very exciting, huh?
Though it may conjure up images of crazy old men, hunched over microscopes in dark corners- taxonomists actually come in all shapes and sizes and their research is hugely important and diverse. In fact, it may be an unglamorous and misunderstood discipline but taxonomy is so important that biologists and conservationists couldn’t do without it!
What’s the big deal?
By identifying & classifying organisms, and creating lists of species, field guides & other tools, taxonomy helps conservationists understand biodiversity and work out how to protect it. Think of all those species on the IUCN red list – they were all identified by taxonomists. What about biodiversity hotspots which need to be conserved? By identifying which species live where, taxonomists show which parts of our planet are most diverse and in need of protection. And then there’s all those invasive species which threaten native ones- how can you tell the good guys from the bad? Can you tell your harlequin ladybird from your 7-spot? That’s where taxonomy comes in. Not to mention asian shore crabs, spanish blue bells or ruddy ducks.
Knowing what species there are and where they live, can help us investigate climate change, research diseases (warning, grisly pictures!), or manage resources. Taxonomists are even called upon in the battle against crime, through forensics or by identifying the spoils of wildlife crimes.
Taxonomists face a huge task. Just 1.5 million of the estimated 8.7million species on the planet have been catalogued- yet they are disappearing at an alarming rate. How many will become extinct before they are even discovered? Well, you can help…
You don’t have to spend 20 years with your head buried in natural history books to make a difference. Go outside, look around and see what you can find. There are loads of organizations out there waiting to hear from you and they’ll provide the information you need to ID things yourself. The Natural History Museum has loads of links, whether you’re interested in plants, animals or creepy crawlies there’s something for you- and you really will make a difference.