The Accidental Taxonomist

Accidental Taxonomist title image sml

Dr. Thelma Finlayson, an emeritus professor at Simon Fraser University, will soon be celebrating her 100th birthday. In honour of this event, a half-day symposium was held at FSU a couple of weeks ago. The themes reflected Finlayson’s own research: insect biocontrol and taxonomy. I had been asked by the coordinator of the event, Dr. Elizabeth Elle, to give the final lecture in the symposium with a focus on biodiversity and systematics.  An honour, but also daunting! According to Elle, Finlayson became a parasitoid taxonomist by necessity rather than by original intent. Her main interest was biocontrol but in order to do that she had to become an expert in the taxonomy of tiny wasps. That story made me reflect on my own path to becoming a mite taxonomist.  I, too, had followed an accidental route, with my original interests being ecology and behaviour. Then I wondered how many of my colleagues were also Accidental Taxonomists.

About a month before the symposium I sent a request to three arthropod oriented listservs with different audiences: mite biologists, arachnologists working on taxa other than mites, and parasitoid hymenopterists.  This is the content of that request:

Dear XXX people: I will be giving a presentation on taxonomy at Simon Fraser University at the end of March, and as part of my seminar I would like to discuss how people end up being taxonomists.  In some cases, becoming an expert on the taxonomy of a group may have been a deliberate choice, e.g., as your M.Sc. project you may have chosen to revise a particular genus of XXX.  But in other cases one may have planned to do a project on behaviour or ecology, and discovered that you couldn’t complete the project without first learning the taxonomy of the group.   So, I would greatly appreciate hearing from those of you who have become local (or international!) experts in taxonomy of particular groups of XXX.  Here are my two questions: (1) for what xxx group(s) have you become a taxonomic expert? By ‘expert’, I mean expert at identification, not necessarily someone who also describes new taxa. (2) how did you happen to become an expert? Was that your first choice, or had you originally planned to work on some other aspect of that group’s biology? Many thanks! Heather Here are the results that I presented to a wonderful audience of Finlayson fans on 25 March. (1) Geographical distribution of respondents: 64 people from 23 countries, top five being U.S.A., United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and the Netherlands (see map below). map of Accidental Taxonomist replies (2) Here are the taxonomic orientations of those respondents:Accidental Taxonomist - replies broken down by taxon   (3) Out of curiosity, I checked the sex-ratio of the respondents. Strongly male-biased – but note the caveat (which is relevant to ALL of the responses, not just this one).Accidental Taxonomist - replies broken down by taxon and sex (4) And then the main question: how many respondents became taxonomists deliberately, as their first choice, or by accident or necessity? A few people didn’t answer this question directly, so I made an educated guess based on the stories associated with their responses. The answer is that about half of them were Accidental Taxonomists. Accidental Taxonomist - replies broken down by deliberate or accidental (5) My gut feeling after reading the responses was that non-mite arachnologists were much more likely to have chosen taxonomy as a career than were acarologists.  Araneologists seem to be born rather than made.  My guts were correct! One could also hypothesize, conversely, that mite biologists tend to be forced into taxonomy out of necessity, given the vast unknown that is acarine biodiversity. Accidental Taxonomist - replies broken down by deliberate or accidental and by taxon Although some taxonomists responded in a brief and businesslike manner, others provided long and delightful (or sometimes sad) stories of how their scientific careers had evolved.  After the symposium, a few people asked me whether I planned to publish the results.  Nope – can’t.  Didn’t have Human Ethics clearance to do this survey. It is totally illegal, contraband data.  Plus, the survey was not at all scientifically designed. So please take these results cum grano salis.



  1. Most non-acarine arachnids are large enough to see without a microscope. This isn’t true about mites or hymenopter parasitoids, or at least of those that are useful in biocontrol. So, there may be a size-of-taxon bias here.

    I predict that if you expanded this study to include taxa with larger members (beetles, butterflies, the usual suspects), then the majority would have chosen taxonomy (if not the group they eventually became specialists on). What amazes me is that about a third of the acarologist deliberately chose to do mite taxonomy. De gustibus …

    1. I agree – most children don’t wander about with a microscope, so a group of organisms whose diversity can be recognized with the unaided eye is more likely to be ‘chosen’ early in the life of a taxonomist than one whose wonders are not so obvious.

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