The Work of the Taxonomist

Taxonomists must know something about other branches of biology, such as genetics (the study of heredity), morphology (the study of the structure of organisms), physiology (the study of the functions and activities of organisms), ecology (the study of the relationship of organisms to their environment), and paleontology (the study of organisms that lived in past ages). Their knowledge of structure and function must include cytology (which deals with cells) and biochemistry (the chemistry of living organisms). They must also know statistical methods and the rules and conventions of the internationally accepted taxonomic system.

Taxonomists' activities include the following:

  • They study specimens they have collected or those in collections made by others and preserved in museums and other institutions. They often study living organisms in their natural habitats, or dig for fossils in rock strata.
  • They record their data and study data recorded by other researchers.
  • Often applying statistical methods, they place organisms they have studied in the group (called a taxon, plural taxa) to which they conclude the organisms belong. If the organisms belong to no recorded taxon, they place them in a new one, selecting or coining a name for the taxon in accordance with accepted rules of nomenclature (the system of names).
  • In the process of carrying out their other activities, they study, test, and, when necessary, help to modify existing theories and principles of taxonomy.

Taxonomists who concentrate on systematics attempt to reconstruct evolutionary histories of species. Those who concentrate on cladistics describe similarities and differences between groups of species. Those who concentrate on phenetics identify similarities and differences between individual species.