Armchair Taxonomist


Variety is the spice of life and taxonomy is the science we use to understand that seasoning. Taxonomists describe and organize the billions of living things on this planet, creating vast collections of information that help us understand how all life on Earth is connected. Their work has been the basis of medical breakthroughs, lead to the great discoveries of ecology, and opened our eyes to the wonders of evolution. Taxonomy even plays a role in how you and I think about the things that live in our own backyards.

Trouble is, a lot of that information is hidden behind paywalls or scattered across random sources where the general public can't easily get to it.

That's where you come in.

The Encyclopedia of Life is hosting a challenge. The goal: bring information about animals, plants, fungi, protozoa, and bacteria to the world. Readers are asked to research and write short descriptions of some of nature's most fascinating species. Those descriptions will be reviewed by curators for inclusion in the Encyclopedia of Life — a crowd-created, open-source effort to make scientific information about the world we live in available to all the people who live in it. And here's the kicker: the best descriptions will earn their writers a place in history — a private behind-the-scenes tour of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History is up for grabs.

Humans have probably been naming things and making lists since our earliest ancestors began to separate "Stuff That Tastes Good" from "Stuff That Killed That Other Guy That One Time". But taxonomy, as we know it today, really began in the 18th-century, when Carl Linnaeus started assigning Latin names to different plants and animals and organizing them into a hierarchy where humans (the obvious pinnacle of creation) lorded over the rest of of the Earth.

Written By: Maggie Koerth-Baker
continue to source article at


  1. Well… it’s brown, really big and has one bastard of a set of teeth. The bugger likes rooting through the bin for scraps. Eats the occasional dog.

  2. I’m curios do taxonomists have any interest in tools from computer science for creating ontologies? An ontology is more or less the same as a taxonomy although it can be for any domain. It consists of logical relations between sets, subsets, relations, etc. The cool thing is there are tools now, the best I’ve seen is Protege from Stanford, that let you describe an ontology/taxonomy and the tool will verify the logical correctness of the model. When you are creating a large model it is incredibly helpful. Actually it can be useful for even a moderately sized model.

    In the past I would have said tools for data or object modeling were too focused on software design to be useful to a more general audience like biologists creating a taxonomy. The goal of those tools was essentially to create a model that is unambiguous and that can cleanly be transformed into a programming language and database. But the ontology tools work at a much higher level of abstraction. Where as the goal of a data modeling tool is to remove ambiguity the goal of an ontology editing tool is to accomodate ambiguity (because they are trying to create much more flexible systems that can work on the web without being tied to one specific data model). Where as object modeling tools tend to see multiple inheritance (a class with two or more super classes) as something to be avoided ontology tools see multiple inheritance as an essential part of the model, since its all about sets and subsets multiple inheritance just means a set is a subset of two other sets.

    I would encourage people interested in taxonomies to take a look at Protege:

  3. Taxonomy is a great subject for examining the details of evolutionary relationships.
    It is essentially about sorting out the evolutionary branches on the tree of life. Frequently this is not made clear enough in teaching!

    Here is a link about the taxonomy of cats as an example;


    There are 41 known species of felids in the world today, all of which descended from the same ancestor.[1] This taxon originated in Asia and spread across continents by crossing land bridges. Testing of mitochondrial and nuclear DNA by Warren Johnson and Stephen O’Brien of the US National Cancer Institute demonstrated the ancient cats evolved into eight main lineages that diverged in the course of at least 10 migrations (in both directions) from continent to continent via the Bering land bridge and Isthmus of Panama, with the Panthera genus being the oldest and the Felis genus being the youngest. They estimated 60% of the modern species of cats developed within the last million years.[3]

    Most felids have a haploid number of 18 or 19. New World cats (those in Central and South America) have a haploid number of 18, possibly due to the combination of two smaller chromosomes into a larger one.[4] Prior to this discovery, biologists had been largely unable to establish a family tree of cats from the fossil record because the fossils of different cat species all look very much alike, differing primarily in size.



    Traditionally, five subfamilies have been distinguished within family Felidae based on phenotypical features: the Felinae, the Pantherinae, the Acinonychinae (cheetahs), the extinct Machairodontinae, and the extinct Proailurinae.

    The traditional phenotypical classification, is gradually being replaced by genotypical classifications of lineages, as genetic investigations progress. The lists on the link are quite extensive even without looking at varieties of domestic breeds.

Leave a Reply