The rarity problem in Australian taxonomy

"Anybody could do that," replied the young fellow contemptuously. "I want to distinguish myself."

"Then I'll tell you what you'll do, Moriarty. Take a narrow branch of some scientific study, and restrict yourself to that. Say you devote your life to some special division of the Formicae?"

"The what?"

"Formicae. The name is plural. It embraces all the different species of ants."

"Why, there's only about three species of ants altogether; and there's nothing to learn about them except that they make different kinds of hills, and give different kinds of bites. That sort of study would about suit you. Fat lot of distinction a person could get out of ants."

- Tom Collins, Such Is Life (1903)

Moriarty could be forgiven for thinking there were only three species of ants on Runnymede Station. Those were the common species, the ones he saw every day. Moriarty didn't know that most species in any taxon are naturally rare.

Ecologists know about rarity. They do an exhaustive survey of some group of organisms on a study site, and find that there are a few very abundant species and a "long tail" of much less abundant species. They build a rank-abundance diagram ( from their results.

For ecologists, those many rare forms are a statistical nuisance, and there are hundreds (thousands?) of published articles in which the rare forms have been deliberately ignored: "Species represented by 10 or fewer individuals were excluded from the analysis."

The rare forms can also discomfit the ecologist with a taxonomist on tap. The latter has no trouble naming the abundant species, because these were collected and described long ago. But when the taxonomist sends the ecologist a final species list, many of the rare forms that were collected only have code names like "Improbabilidae sp. 1", because they hadn't been seen before. By anyone.

The rank-abundance relationship applies to terrestrial, freshwater and marine taxa. It's one of the principal obstacles to naming and describing the entire Australian biota, but it's not often discussed.

Think of taxonomy as the discovery, documentation and classification of life. The latter two activities can increase more or less proportionately with resourcing. The more money you put into training and funding taxonomists and systematists, the more species get properly documented and classified.

Discovery is different, because the amount of money needed to collect specimens increases with the rarity of the species. On day 1 of a field trip you can find 50% of the species at a study site. As time goes on, the rarer species drop one by one into the collecting bucket, but even after a week the species accumulation curve ( may not have levelled off.

I'm currently working up a set of Tasmania's rarest millipedes, some of which are only known from single specimens. Not only are these species naturally rare, they have jackpot distributions on a small spatial scale. If I'm lucky, I'll find a jackpot of several adults in a metre-square patch of forest litter. Most of the time I'm unlucky. I'll go to the only known locality (usually it's a revisit to one of my previous sites) and won't find the target species, just new locality records for more abundant ones. So I keep looking. Field trips cost time and money, and these rare forms are costing far more than their more abundant congeners and confamilials did.

Mine is nearly a "best possible collecting" scenario, because millipedes in Tasmania can be collected in the right life stage at any time of year. Think of all the rare Australian species which are only findable or recognisable when the the season or the weather is right!

Bob Mesibov

Direct action

A suburban mall, 2 pm. Mothers and grandmothers sit chatting in the shade. Toddlers squat together in a sandbox, their sun-hats almost touching. The lunchtime business crowd has gone back to their offices. A waiter wipes down the vacant outside tables and pushes chairs back into place. A white ibis (Threskiornis molucca) perches on the rim of a rubbish bin.

Inside the Café Vittoria, a young woman in sunglasses sits with a latte, idly flipping the pages of a magazine. She's been waiting half an hour and is running out of patience. The candle stub she's brought with her is burning low in an ashtray on the table. She wonders if she has another in her handbag.

Into the café sweeps an older woman, smiling and laden with shopping bags. Looking around the café, she spots the candle-lit table and bustles over, dumping her bags on and under the table's empty chairs.

"Whoosh!" she says, sitting down to face the younger woman. "Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny."

"But morphospace is boundless," replies the other, coolly.

Passwords having been exchanged, the women shake hands and murmur "Luz" in unison. Thus begins another clandestine meeting of agents from the League of Unemployed Zoologists, LUZ, whose acronym means "light" in Spanish and whose emblem, the candle, symbolises the vulnerability of zoological knowledge.

"Life in Sydney has been good to you, I see", remarks the younger woman with a hint of sarcasm, nodding towards the shopping bags.

"They're empty boxes in those bags, sweetie", replies the other. "Part of my disguise. What's your UID? I'm Patiriella, Marine Section."

"So I was told. Austrochorema, Freshwater. You're late."

"Not by much. What do you have from Melbourne?"

Austrochorema sips her latte. "A little. Our colleague at Museums Victoria slipped a plea for donations into a squid being loaned to the Smithsonian."

"Really? Which part of the squid?"

The younger woman frowns. "Can we please stick to business?"

A waiter heads their way. "I'll have a long black," calls Patiriella, and the waiter retreats. "Sorry. Anything out of La Trobe?"

"Nothing good,'" replies Austrochorema. "The School of Life Sciences got wound up. Long-contract staff are going into the new Department of Resources, Econometrics and Accountancy Development.'

"A fitting acronym," observes Patiriella. "I don't suppose they'll be offering anything on invertebrates."

"Hardly. Listen!" Austrochorema leans forward, suddenly animated, speaking in a fast whisper. "There's a plan out of Edith Cowan. Do you remember the Bogong Incident, when millions of moths invaded Parliament House in Canberra?"

The conversation is interrupted by the arrival of the coffee.

"Of course," replies Patiriella, when the waiter is out of earshot. "How could I forget? Insects in the newspapers for days, ANIC footage on the TV news."

"This is bigger. Breeding colonies have been established at secret locations near Albany and two more are planned for the Launceston area."

"What is it? Another moth?"

"We aren't to know. There are hints, though. Conventional poisons won't help. The only way to control these things will be with an attractant, a pheromone tailored to this one, genetically modified disrupter."

Patiriella sighs. "I don't know. Terrorism seems so...extreme."

"This isn't terrorism," enthuses Austrochorema. "It's direct action. The Commonwealth just needs to be reminded of the importance of zoological expertise. Pheromone traps will be activated when our demands are met: full restoration of zoology faculties and courses at universities across Australia, return of ABRS funding to CPI-indexed 2015 levels, guest spots for soil zoologists on the ABC-TV gardening program..."

"I know, I've read the manifesto. But can we trust the bastards?"

Austrochorema smirks. "They'll keep their promises this time. If they want the beaches to be safe."

Patiriella's eyes widen. "I've heard nothing about this! And I'm in Marine Section!"

The younger woman breathes gently on the candle between them. For a moment, the flame grows. "We have friends overseas, Patiriella."

(To be continued, unless the Decadal Plan reverses the trends. If not... luz.)

Bob Mesibov

Linneaus and the Ackronyme project (satire)

The following fragment was pieced together from notes written by Jakob Rindler and only recently discovered in a shed at the Liverpool Botanic Garden. It is thought the notes were acquired, together with many other documents and specimens from the Linneaus estate, by Sir James Smith in 1783.

Although not an "apostle" student of Linneaus, Rindler was a summertime house-guest at the Linneaus farm at Hammarby, now a suburb of Uppsala. In the early 1760s a botanic garden was planted at Hammarby, and in several letters from Linneaus, Rindler is mentioned as a young and enthusiastic botanist who was of great help in tending the Hammarby plantings.

Judging from internal evidence, the meeting reported by Rindler probably took place in 1764 or 1765. It is curious that Linneaus never mentioned the interview with Sir Edward Ackronyme in later correspondence.

I have taken the liberty of translating Rindler's notes into reasonably modern English.


The master was visited today by an English gentleman, Sir Edward Ackronyme, who carried letters of introduction from Earl Macclesfield [Royal Society of London] and Philip Miller [Chelsea Physic Garden].

The gentleman appeared to be very intelligent and spoke both Swedish and Latin. He praised the master's many contributions to knowledge. He said the master was a scientific colossus of the age and respected by all who knew the master's work. He said famam extendere factis [through our deeds we extend our fame] on the master's coat-of-arms was an inspiration to all natural philosophers.

The gentleman said he had read the second edition of the master's Species Plantarum, and had observed that it was supplemented with corrections to the text and with additional notes. The gentleman had a proposal to make in connection with this.

He proceeded to describe correctly and in interesting detail how Species Plantarum had been written and published, which greatly surprised the master. The gentleman said that his proposal did not, however, concern the production of scholarly books, but instead the use and diffusion of the knowledge in the books.

The gentleman explained that he and others had invented a method for reproducing the master's descriptions, using a large number of scribes and a new means of printing which was very swift and not expensive. The words of the master concerning individual species would be copied out by the scribes and printed in large numbers as separata.

The separata might then be sold more widely than the Species Plantarum. The gentleman gave an example, in which a philosopher in Virginia could acquire the descriptions of plants and animals native to Virginia. The two volumes of Species Plantarum contained many descriptions of plants and animals which were not found in Virginia and might not be of interest to philosophers there. The separata pertaining to Virginia, or to any other place, could be gathered up and placed in a pouch.

The gentleman said that if a purchaser was only interested in Pisces in the master's Systema Naturae, then the separata for Pisces could be gathered together for the purchaser.

The master observed that this was very clever. At this point the gentleman asked the master if the master could see value in this method of diffusion of knowledge. The master replied that it indeed had value.

The gentleman was pleased to hear this, and said that he had also received encouraging replies to this question from other philosophers. The gentleman had spoken directly to Dr Scopoli in Idrija and to other philosophers who had published works of natural history. Each had agreed that there was much merit in the idea of spreading more widely their descriptions and classifications.

The gentleman said that if the master wished to make a correction or addition to any one of his species, that information could be sent to the scribes, who would make the correction or addition in a new separatum. The new separatum would be sent to all those who had purchased an uncorrected version. The gentleman said this was possible because the cost of printing separata by the new method was hardly of consequence, and the number printed could be one or a thousand.

The gentleman produced a small sheet of paper and gave it to the master. On the paper had been printed a description from Species Plantarum of a species, and beneath the description was the name of the master. Beneath the name was an addition the master had made to the description, and this too was subscribed with the name of the master. At the bottom of the paper was a date, which the gentleman said was the date on which the separatum had been printed.

The master again praised the cleverness of the idea of separata. He begged leave to ask questions, and the gentleman agreed.

The master asked first whether there would be a cost to himself in the production of separata. The gentleman said there would be no cost to the master or to other philosophers. The work of the scribes and the printing of separata would have royal patronage. He was not presently permitted to name the royal courts from which the patronage would come.

The master expressed surprise to hear that more than one kingdom was offering to assist. The gentleman explained that the idea of diffusion of knowledge through separata was not his alone. He was one of a group of interested gentlemen distributed throughout Europe. Each member of the group made a particular contribution. His own contribution related to printing, regarding which he could modestly admit to having acquired a degree of expertise.

The group of gentlemen met on occasions in various European cities. Their next meeting would take place in Paris. They would consider the question of whether separata should be printed only in Latin, or also in various modern languages, and if the latter, whether one separatum should be printed in more than one language. The gentleman said there were arguments for and arguments against, and the question might have to be resolved at a later meeting in another city.

Now the master asked, whether the patronage enjoyed by the gentlemen could be extended to natural philosophers and their students. The gentleman apologised because he did not think it possible. The production and distribution of separata was a matter of diffusion of knowledge, not of the generation of knowledge. The gentleman said that he and the other gentlemen greatly appreciated the work done by the master and other natural philosophers. It was the humble role of the gentleman and his associates to spread that knowledge and to make it more useful.

At this the master became upset and spoke severely. He said he worked day and night on the investigation of a science that a thousand men will not be able to complete, to say nothing of the time he squandered every day on scientific correspondence, while the gentleman and his colleagues can constantly enjoy the amenities of life. The master said that separata may indeed be of value, but they add nothing at all to knowledge, and that the gaining of knowledge was his constant goal.

The gentleman said that he hoped nothing he had said had angered the master, and that he had one more question to ask. While the scribes were skilled and diligent, it occasionally happened that a copying error was made when producing the separata. The gentleman asked whether the master would be willing to examine drafts of separata before they were printed. He explained that he and his associates were not natural philosophers, and that natural philosophers would be the persons best able to locate and correct any errors.

This concluded the meeting with the gentleman. The master did not reply to the last question, but wished the gentleman a good day, and turned to me and said that there was work to be done in the garden.

- Bob Mesibov

What about the passionate?

You've probably noticed: taxonomists aren't quite like other scientists.

They have a powerful fascination, if not an embarrassingly strong affection, for "their" groups of organisms. As the TV professionals say, they're great talent, because they talk excitedly on camera about their favourite taxa.

They study particular taxa for decades, becoming the experts — the "names" — to whom the biosecurity and agriculture sectors turn for advice.

They get better at what they do as time goes on. Taxonomists hit their stride in late career, peaking in their 50s and 60s and often publishing valuable papers in their 70s and 80s.

They can be relatively cheap to run. Unless they're focused on molecular systematics, the annual costs for their taxonomic work might amount to just a few thousand dollars.

They don't require a lot of formal training. Some of Australia's best taxonomists are self-taught in their specialty.

They can communicate with the public directly about ideas the public already understands: "species", "discovery", "natural habitats", "invasive organisms". Only rarely do taxonomists need a professional science writer to background and explain what they've done.

Granted all this, previous calls for more public support for taxonomy in Australia seem a bit misdirected.

There's the call for more training money in Australia's universities, which gave up teaching taxonomy long ago. Instead the universities turn out PhDs with only the dimmest understanding of the maths behind the sophisticated phylogeny-guessing software they've relied on, and a similarly limited understanding of their study taxon's biology. The door opens, the new PhDs leave and compete with all the other science PhDs for work, leaving behind an interest in the taxa that helped them get a degree.

There's the call for increased infrastructure spending on museums and herbaria, which is great, because taxonomists depend on collections. But if an increased collections spend isn't paralleled by increased taxonomic work in those collections, what's the point? Without more curators and supported visitors, museum managers are justified in asking "Why do you need more than one specimen of each species?" and "How is any of this bringing more people through our doors?"

There's the call for more IT spending to aggregate more collection and other species-tied data, and to put those data at the fingertips of... umm, somebody... with a browser. Who will then spend days cleaning the downloaded data because the IT funding included not one brass razoo for data cleaning at source (disclaimer: I'm a data auditor as well as a taxonomist).

What's missing from these calls? Any mention of the people we need more of, those passionate taxonomists.

Here are four ways those people could be encouraged and supported:

(1) Find them and train them: "We're looking for people who are absolutely fascinated with particular Australian life-forms, and we'll back your passion with taxonomic training. You may not get a career out of this, but we'll give you the tools for a lifetime of satisfying study and of contributions to knowledge of the Australian biota."

(2) Get the collections to reach out. Ensure that museums and herbaria have enough money to host taxonomist volunteers, and to sponsor short-term visits by specialists, including non-professionals.

(3) Reward productive taxonomic work. How about ABRS offering up to 50 $5000 annual grants per annum (up to $250 000 total) to currently publishing taxonomists, renewed every year? The money could be used for collection visits, field work, publishing fees, conference attendance and project-tied costs such as sequencing and SEM work. Unaffiliated and retired specialists would welcome even this small drip-feeding of taxonomic support. The risk per grant (the risk that the money is wasted) is trivial and easily minimised by cancelling payment if there's no evidence that productive taxonomic work was done in the preceding year.

(4) Pay for mentoring. There aren't any succession plans in Australian taxonomy, despite the fact that for every specialist there are dozens of non-specialists with an existing or potential interest in working with what could otherwise become an orphan group. We know those potential mentorees exist: the BowerBird project has brought hundreds of keen non-professionals out of the woodwork. Why not directly support the transfer of specialist knowledge, with travel grants for joint collection visits and field trips?

OK, it's obvious. I don't see taxonomy fitting entirely within an academic framework, which is how many taxonomy promoters want governments and other funding sources to see it. Instead I see taxonomy distributed widely within the Australian community, with weekend, holiday and retired collectors and enthusiasts being part of a broad collaborative effort. That's probably because I'm goal-focused. I want to see increased taxonomic effort in Australia, and that's not the same as an increased number of professional taxonomists.

- Bob Mesibov

Bob Mesibov

Bob Mesibov

I'm retired and I study millipedes.

Since 2002 (just before I retired) I've described or redescribed about 200 Australian millipede species. My Millipedes of Australia website is a resource for taxonomists and offers more than 14000 vetted locality records for named species as downloadable TSVs and KMLs.

In 43 years of collecting in Australia I've visited ca 3200 unique localities and deposited thousands of millipede specimens in museums in New South Wales, Queensland, Tasmania and Victoria.

I'm also a coder and data auditor, and spend a lot of my time happily working on the Linux command line.

For more about me and my Web resources, please visit