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Archive for the tag “Systematics”

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.

A Brief history of Taxonomy

A history of Taxonomy that includes the very first people who got intersted in the classification of organisms. It is not a complete history, but it presents the key personalities and ideas that came to constitute the discipline of Taxonomy through the ages.

Meet Andrea Cesalpino

As a student, during the very firs class of Introduction to Systematics, I learned about Andrea Cesalpino (1524/25 – 1603), the italian botanist. Unfortunately, this scholar is not that famous, but it surely isn’t because of the quality of his work. While travelling in Florence, I was very pleased to find a statue of the naturalist in front of the Ufizzi Museum (and frankly, it probably was the only one I knew among all of the other statues).


In Tuscany, Renaissance began quite a while before in the rest of Europe, so being born there Ceslpino was more enclined to studying science from a different perspective than what used to be done. His main focus was on the systematics of plants, but he also contributed to taxonomy, physiology and philosophy.

During the Middle Ages, the classification of plants was done according to their medicinal virtues – which was also reflected in the gardens of that period. The innovation that Cesalpino brought was that he used the fruits and the seeds of the plants in order to classify them. This is very important as we now know that these are key systematic characters for reconstituting phylogenies. So this was a very modern method that helped and inspired botanists in all of Europe, and of course his ideas are still used in current botany.
One of his books, perhaps the most famous of his works, “De plantis libri XVI” was published in 1583, is considered to be the most importan publication of botany before Linnaeus.  It develops the concept of genus, and a classification of flowering plants (Angiosperms). His will for observation was such that he successfuly described organs of plants without using a microscope (as it hadn’t yet been discovered).
Another thing Cesalpino is known for, is that he was one of the first botanists to constitute a herbarium, in fact his is one of the oldest still in existence as it dates back to 1550-60.

Surely, Cesalpino was a great thinker of his time and his contributions to modern science were valuable in many ways.

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