Experienced taxonomists, how did you managed to become one?

I want to become someday an insect taxonomist, and I know the basics, but taxonomy feels infinite once we go down from the order category. How did you learn the taxonomy you know now? How much does a taxonomist really need to know? Do you memorize or just keep looking up the taxons until you have learned them?

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I’m not an expert per se, but in certain studies I’m working very hard on becoming one. Find a specific group you’re interested in- whether it’s Order or Family, or even something else. Do whatever research you can on your own, reading pdfs online, using iNaturalist by looking at observations and seeing what’s commonly mistaken, learn those mistakes so you can help others out. Then, the best part. Reach out to the people that have written those articles and papers you read on the taxon you’re interested in with as many questions as you want. I wouldn’t put them all in one email (or letter, your choice!), but sparse it out.

I reached out to Royce Cumming for help learning taxonomy within leaf insects (Phylliidae), and it was the most helpful and kind things I’ve had happen to me in a long while. Now, after just a couple of emails, I’m helping him with descriptions and whatnot. Entomologists are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met, and are always looking for opportunities to share their knowledge with others.

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Without a doubt, there are definitely some taxonomists who have memorised all of the species within their taxon of expertise (I’ve been in the field with several, and it’s definitely a great learning experience). However, these cases inevitably involve specialisation in a higher level taxon with a relatively low number of species. Unless you specifically only work on a very small clade, there are just too many species to remember, so in almost all cases, taxonomists don’t memorise every species within their sphere of interest, as it’s just not feasible.

Some taxonomists (often botanists) will work across multiple, sometimes very disparate taxa, and so all of the species within their remit might be very different to each other. Even if working within a single genus, memorising all species can be a daunting task; there are many genera (mostly invertebrates or plants) with hundreds or even thousands of species in them, and families with tens of thousands of species!

If I found an obscure weevil and showed it to a weevil taxonomist, they may well be able to ID it off the top of their head if it’s a distinct species/one they happen to recognise. What is more likely to happen, however, is that they are able to recognise the weevil to a coarse level like subfamily or tribe, and then use an appropriate key to identify it. And the reason they can do that (in addition to the fact of having access to/knowing how to access identification tools/resources like that in the first place, which is a whole other discussion) is because they have two skills they have developed over time:

  1. They can identify/sort specimens to coarse taxonomic levels by sight. This is a useful thing you can practise now without being an expert: understanding the differences between coarse taxa such as order or family. If I see a photo of an insect with only two wings, with the other pair reduced to halteres, it doesn’t matter what species it is or where it’s from, I can tell you that it’s either a fly, Diptera (if the wings are the forewings), or a twisted-wing parasite, Strepsiptera (if the wings are the hindwings), and eliminate all other insect orders, because I know this important character. If I see that the insect has piercing/sucking mouthparts, I can straight away eliminate groups like Coleoptera and Orthoptera because they have chewing mouthparts, and narrow down the options to groups such as flies or bugs among a few. You might not realise it, but you, and pretty much everyone on the planet, already has this skill at some level! If you were to show a photo of a dandelion and a photo of a tiger to someone, they could tell you that one was a plant and one was an animal, i.e., they’ve just identified/differentiated them at the level of kingdom. From that basic starting point, you can start working your way down the taxonomic ranks until you learn the difference between phyla, classes etc. So learning the important differences between the members within an intermediate rank, e.g., how to separate the families within an order, is a very useful skill to have, and one which taxonomists will regularly exercise. (of course, there are still cases where even IDing something to family might also require a key!)

  2. They understand how to use keys, and how to recognise and interpret the characters and morphologies referred to in them. It’s one thing to read a key and understand that you need to appraise characters X and Y to identify a specimen, but it’s another to be able to look at said specimen and know where character X is and what character Y is. Morphological structures are often similar across related species of course, but there is a great deal of variation out there in many groups! Consider this example I came across recently.

This is a cool plant called Guichenotia intermedia from Western Australia. I spent ages going through the key, getting frustrated over the dead ends I kept reaching and not being able to figure out why I couldn’t get anywhere. In particular, all of the descriptions of petal size and colour for the species in Western Australia did not match my photos at all, even though I was very sure I had the genus correct. Then after reading a description of the genus more broadly, I realised my mistake; those giant pink lobes that look like petals aren’t actually petals! They’re actually the calyx, and the petals are the tiny red scales towards the centre of the flower.

So understanding the morphology of your group of interest, and what these structures actually look like, including how they differ between genera or species, is integral to key use. If an expert is using a key and gets to a step asking about hair type, they’ll know the difference between simple vs glandular hairs, or antrorse vs retrorse hairs. It’s knowing these characters, and what the different character states actually mean and look like in their taxon, that is a useful skill.

So long answer short, understand how to make identifications within your broad group at two different levels: a high level at coarse taxonomic ranks (I see a beetle, ok I know this is a ladybird, or I know this is a weevil, or I know this is a rove beetle), and a low level at finer taxonomic ranks (ok now that I know it’s a ladybird, I know to use this particular key, and when looking at the specimen in front of me, I know where the pronotum is, what the tarsus is, what the different terminology referring to the elytra means). If you apply these principles, it will certainly help you on your journey :)

I’m not a professional taxonomist, but have done a fair bit of work with a couple of insect taxonomists as an intern and volunteer, so hopefully my answer is a fair representation of just a couple of the many skills in a taxonomist’s toolbox (which will hopefully be expanded upon by the many amazing taxonomists that use iNat, especially since I haven’t even touched on actually describing new species!)

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It takes a lot of time, no doubt, to become a specialist, in terms of tens of years. First of all, you should find out which groups you like, then reach out to some expert for help and advise. If you have a Natural History Museum around, that would be the first place to go. Then there are languages: depending on the group, knowledge of English is not enough, as lots of previous centuries’ stuff is written in French and German. And previous centuries’ stuff is still relevant today, you have sometimes to read papers of late XVIII century…

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This is very useful, thank you!

I’m a freshman at UT Austin and I’ve got plans to study in botany, particularly in the taxonomic, systematic and evolutionary point of view. Haven’t quite narrowed down my field of study or found a group of interest yet, my interests are quite broad. I’m reading Plant Systematics by Michael G. Simpson, recommended by Crime Pays But Botany Doesn’t, trying to get a page or two per day. While I haven’t gotten to studying patterns in plant families (synapomorphies?) it’s good to know that’s a direction I should start leaning towards.

As for keys, I found them quite difficult at first (an rather humorous quote I’ve heard: “Keys are written by people who don’t need them, for people who can’t use them.”), once you start to comprehend botanical terminology/apply that stuff to the field it makes much more sense. With keys, I feel like it’s best to have the plant in front of you to use them (not always ideal if your local flora book is 1000 pages!), and even then they might not be in the right phenological state to be identified!
My local Flora of North Central Texas has proved to be a good start for learning botanical keys (not overly large/complicated as a key covering, say, all of North America!), so I suggest starting with local keys and then afterwards thinking about moving to something larger like FNA (Flora of North America).

Note that even though I don’t use keys out in the field I will often read up on them and then see if I can take pictures of characteristics listed, it proves very handy.

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@ouberon welcome to the iNaturalist Forum!

Not sure if my own experience translates well for Entomology, but for what it’s worth… My path to vascular plant taxonomy came from a “generalist” direction, compounded of a deep emotional connection to certain wild places, the resulting desire to know those places more intimately, and a strong innate drive and aptitude toward pattern-recognition and classification.

So I started by learning as much of the vascular plant flora of those places as I could - vascular plants being both easily studied and relatively well-catalogued there. (I quoted “generalist” earlier because as diverse as vascular plants are, I never did venture much beyond them, and they are still just one cross-section of the biodiversity of a place.) Learned a lot of the geology too, both for the deeper history of the place, and to help understand the distribution patterns of the plants there.

As a side-product of knowing the flora of a region fairly thoroughly, one becomes aware of gaps in the understanding of particular plant species or groups. Wanting to fill such gaps was my motivation to learn and use the tools of systematics and taxonomy. (Though in the end I’ve remained a “generalist” at heart.)

Yes. Well before taking any formal botany classes, I took a more brute-force approach. For example, toting around a completely illustrated 4-volume set of the Pacific States Flora in the field, and working backward from the illustrations to learn the descriptive terminology and keys. Maybe not the most efficient approach to teaching oneself botany, but I learned a lot, and because of the effort involved, it stuck with me much more than memorization would have, and I had a good head-start when formal classes began. Not sure whether having an amazing tool like iNaturalist would have helped or hindered that process (which for me was ~40 years ago). No doubt I would have used it though!

Definitely. I owe a lot to several very kind and helpful mentors along the way. And it helps you become known as someone with a passion in your chosen field. Plan to volunteer a lot, study published research that interests you, work on your own research on your own time, share it with others in your field, and publish it when and where appropriate. If you do sound work, it will get noticed.

No doubt I am biased, but following the work of other taxonomists in my field, I strongly believe that better science results when the scientist starts with broad biologic and geographic learning in the larger group of organisms where they eventually find their narrower taxonomic specialty, instead of starting out with a narrow taxonomic focus. iNaturalist is a hugely helpful learning tool in that regard, and I learn more here every day.

Good luck in all your pursuits!

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If you take any -ology classes in college you’ll be forced to learn the taxonomy in that group of organisms, at least at the family level and many local species. But honestly, the species accounts on INat are a great introduction and guide to taxonomy of your favorite group. Better than many textbooks.

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Great post. I’d just like to add that knowing the characters is not just useful, but vital :) Also, when using dichotomous keys it’s useful to know that sometimes the characters overlap (I can’t think of a specific example but most commonly things involving length overlap). So in this case it’s important to read (interpret) both parts of the couplet you’re up to in the key and decide which is the better match which often comes down to experience and knowing what something is not. Knowing what something is not means you can skip ahead in the key and seeing if you can eliminate certain taxa (i.e. if a couplet is ambiguous but one leads to a path only containing taxa that you are sure are not what you’re looking at you can resolve the ambiguity)

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Why go that coarse? Show them a photo of a chicken and a photo of a tiger, and you will see that they can differentiate at the level of class. They may not be able to explain with technical completeness how they know that one is a bird and the other a beast, but they aren’t going to confuse the two classes. To test this, add a photo of a pigeon. Of course they will put it in the same class as the chicken, not the tiger.

You will find that many experienced naturalists can do this on even finer levels. “How do you know that’s an ash and not a hickory?” “It looks like an ash, not a hickory.” I can’t necessarily describe to you how I know that flower is in the nightshade family – the nightshade family comprises flowers as different as those of the tomato and the petunia – but I don’t have any doubts about what family it is in, and I could be in a part of the world where I don’t know any of the species and still point out, “That’s in the nightshade family.”

This comes from having seen many, many examples, and noticing what they have in common.

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“It looks like an ash, not a hickory.”

And it you deal with taxonomists, you get this too, just with more obscure groups or finer levels of identification. :D The technical term for it is gestalt…when they’re subconsciously putting a lot of little characters so that they just know “what it looks like”. They are also occasionally very wrong, but they still usually get you in the right neighborhood faster

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Some nice discussion about that term in topic: If we took an iNaturalist approach to real life too!

When I look at some dichotomous plant keys and see lots of “more or less”, I wonder how much of that comes from very experienced field botanists trying to find words for their gestalt identification skills, especially with similar species in a genus and varieties.

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If you can, take classes or workshops on the taxa you’re interested in. They don’t have to be formal college-level classes, but learning from someone who knows your group helps a lot! For example at Eagle Hill in Maine, USA, you can take classes, including online classes, in many subjects.

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My specialty is micro fungi. It takes many years to become proficient in fungal taxonomy. The most important path for learning taxonomy is spending time observing and identifying specimens, then reading as much about them as possible.

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Welcome to the forum, @sally_fryar!

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Thanks. :-)