The legacy of a taxonomist

I have recently been looking through the notes of Kenneth W. Cooper, a renaissance entomologist who wore many hats, one of which was as someone passionate about the same beetles I love, the genus Bembidion.  Kenneth and I began corresponding about these beetles when I was a graduate student, and in later years we discovered a mutual interest in the subgenus Liocosmius, and began a collaboration on that group.  Kenneth gave me his notes in 2005, so that I might use them to finish our joint project.  Kenneth died in 2007, at age 94.

Kenneth’s notes are a treasure trove of detailed information, and a perusal of them led me to ponder the legacy of taxonomists, and our struggles to make those legacies last.

Kenneth Cooper (right) and me.  Riverside, California, January 2005.

Kenneth Cooper (right) and me. Riverside, California, January 2005.

Those of us who are explorers in the land of biodiversity are continually gathering new data, even when we don’t intend to.   As we follow the backwaters and trails laid down by our predecessors,  and then strike out through the bush on our own, we are continually noting patterns in biodiversity’s tapestry.  Through the years, we construct in our brains a detailed map of whatever group we are fascinated in.  For me it is Bembidion and other carabids; for you it might be a clade of spiders, or a group of fungi.

Much of that map of life, including the patterns of morphological and ecological variation, is housed in the delicate folds of tissue inside our skulls.  We also occasionally write down into our notebooks (paper in the past, now digital) observations about the variation in one subgenus, or an unusual series of specimens from a recently sampled locality, or the details of some morphological structure.  Even more rarely some subset of these discoveries gets synthesized into a paper that is published, for the rest of the world to see.  As frequently, our knowledge dies with us.

The nature of the taxonomy is such that it is perhaps particularly prone to such losses.  The pattern recognition engines and data storage in our brains makes us all natural taxonomists; we are continually building maps of the world around us, although of course most humans don’t build maps of small beetles.  When taxonomists go into the field or museum, they are continually adding to this map, including in areas they had not meant to explore.  When I go into the field and look for a particular Bembidion, I will find other Bembidion, notice new species, observe previously unknown microhabitat associations, and see geographic patterns I hadn’t noticed before.  I store that information in my brain (and notebooks), with the intention that the newly discovered territory in my map will be published, someday, but, if you please, after I finish the last ten or fifty discoveries I serendipitously uncovered as I explored.

It is both one of the joys and burdens of taxonomy that we have this vast territory to map (at least in groups like insects), and discoveries are so easy to come by that we are continually, often unintentionally,  uncovering nuggets worthy of record.  In other fields of  science one might plan an experiment, execute it, and gather the data, with the rhythm of the work leading to natural breakpoints for writeup and publication.  This is less the case with taxonomy, where we are bombarded, willy-nilly, by the revealing of small new puzzle pieces in our enormous maps.

Kenneth’s notes illustrate the burden. I have papers and notebooks of his that would fill two filing-cabinet drawers.  About a quarter of this is on the subgenus Liocosmius, a group of delicate, pretty Bembidion in western North America.

An undescribed species of Bembidion (Liocosmius) from California

An undescribed species of Bembidion (Liocosmius) from California

Kenneth had become interested in this group in the 1960s, and his notes indicate an ever-expanding fascination with them.  He delved into the detailed structure of their genitalia, and made excellent sketches of his dissections.


He made hundreds of slide mounts of genitalic preps, and filled notebooks with standardized drawings of every specimen.


He took copious measurements, and made table after table containing data.


He was puzzled over the variation in the number of setae on the eltyra of these beetles, and started to explore the literature on fluctuating asymmetry. He filled pages with speculation about species boundaries as he tackled this difficult group.  He marveled at  Laboulbeniales (a group of very cool fungi – more about those later) on the beetles’ bodies, and carefully collected data on those, too.

His notes are a treasure map, but only he could unlock some of the secrets: these notes were meant for his eyes, not mine.  The parts I can interpret show a very careful, thoughtful, thorough mind; the drawings are beautiful. However, there is so much information he gathered, and so many paths that Kenneth’s exploration led him, that he never managed to rein it all in and publish.

Kenneth was not alone in this by any means.  The shelves, filing cabinets, and museum drawers of any taxonomist of his generation (or mine, for that matter) are filled with knowledge of which the world at large is unaware.  I remember visiting Henry Dybas (a world expert in featherwing beetles) in 1980, not long before his death, and heard many tales and saw many drawings of amazingly cool things about ptiliids.  Some of that knowledge died with Henry, and some is now only in his notebooks, or in the brains of the very few other people who have seen his notebooks.  I am sure that when I die many things I have learned will not be passed via paper, bits, or human brains, and will have to be discovered anew by future generations.

Also at play here is the nature of those who choose to be taxonomists.  I suspect we in general are people who like everything neat and tidy, organized, and complete.  It is rare that we sense that we have fully understood a group, and so we are perhaps prone to wait for that never-to-be-achieved enlightenment before we publish, and yet we continue to accumulate knowledge.

One of the goals of my current revision of North American Bembidiina is to participate in the development of tools to capture some of this information before it is lost, via quantum publication.  But it will require more than just tools – it will require a rethinking of how taxonomists view their work.  How we can use the pattern-recognition engines and memory banks of our brains to our best advantage, in the context of the administrative structure of modern science, is something I struggle with; a blog post on this is in my near future.

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6 Responses to The legacy of a taxonomist

  1. Paul J Johnson says:

    Nice memory stimulation, Dave! Starting back in the mid 1970s, Ken was a major influence on me to the degree that I named a species for him. His interests spanned the taxonomic spectrum, for me at the time, including Byrrhidae, Artematopidae, and Boreidae. A letter file contains numerous pages of well-composed and far ranging subjects, though in a bit difficult cursive script written with a fountain pen. Fortunately, drawings were often added. In the mid-80s I diverted a field trip to central CA for a couple of nights in Riverside with Ken and Ruth, a wonderful and generous couple. Driving the extra hundreds of miles was entirely worth it!

  2. Ellinor Michel says:

    A well-observed essay! Thank you, David, for articulating many aspects of the joys and frustrations of being a taxonomist. I’ve applied all those lessons from your phylogenetics class years ago, and now have a big backlog of new taxa to describe. Indeed, quantum publication and web tools might help make it easier to get this kind of work out, making the whole process more responsive, and more collaborative. Doing science can have a solitary aspect, but getting it published is a social act.

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  4. Wonderful essay, David. Although an applied ecologist, if I have to be put in a category, I have enormous respects for taxonomists. In several presentations over the past few years, I have tried to emphasize the importance of honouring the authority names that follow each binomial species name. These were people who devoted much of their lives to science for our benefit. The effort that has gone into the collection, curation, description, and classification of an organism should be remembered, and the people behind that effort valued much more than what is the case. You have preserved Ken Cooper as a human with this post. Your essay also should remind us that there is another important legacy left by taxonomists – the collected specimens, whether the work gets written up or not. I think of my compatriot Daniel Solander, who accompanied Captain Cook on his first voyage to New Zealand and Australia. In spite of publishing very little, his collections have been of immense value. Unfortunately, his insect collection disappeared, apparently, or his name would be known in entomological circles as well, perhaps.Thank you!

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