About Natural History

Counting life

What do most people know about the field of Systematics? When I tell someone in Greece that Systematics is an important and very interesting field of biology, they mostly ask me “the systematic study of what?”. How does it help and what does it do? I am only going to focus on the basis of this science and on how it is linked with museum collections.

We are used to hearing biodiversity questions and how species preservation is crucial in the current ecological disasters. But what is biodiversity and how can it be counted? How is it possible to know if it is increasing or decreasing? How does one know if the changes observed in a small-scale are significant or if similar changes have occurred in the past?
Systematics is the science that defines species and inevitably counts them. The criteria are brought by some rules (Nomenclature), recommendations and the art of defining species (Taxonomy).

While talking to a friend of mine who is a collection manager in the Natural History Museum of Paris, I thought of this: say that it’s not possible to travel the world collecting specimens and seeing specimens in museums – rather realistic in the current economy context. It then becomes crucial to be able to use museum collections that others have put together so carefully. It is all the more important in order to be able to understand the history of each species that we study, its range of morphology, its name attribution etc.

Furthermore, in order to count today’s biodiversity, species need to be defined and this is the first reason why museum collections are important: previous studies or their absence help but also prevent one from making a mistake (naming a species that already exists).

Is it not a shame that most people are not aware of what collections are and what purpose they serve? It is not just for the glory of having the largest collections, they are valuable for many scientists. Sometimes it also happens that new species are discovered while searching old collections as it happened for Xenoceratops foremostensis.

So let’s pay more credit to all precious collections worldwide, unfortunately a lot of them are in poor shape because of the lack of financial support as far as their maintenance is concerned.


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