In The Mass Extinction of Scientists Who Study Species, Dr. Craig McClain argues that we are loosing a fundamental unit of biological science – the Taxonomist. He’s right, of course. Taxonomy is a shrinking field. Entire phyla sit, unstudied, as the expertise necessary to understand them retires and expires. With few to train the next generation of taxonomists, the field could slowly vanish. Molecular tools are supplanting traditional taxonomy (once described to me as “the ability to identify hundreds of species of centimeter-long worms by counting ass-hairs under a microscope”) as the de rigueur method for identifying organisms.
I do not disagree with Craig. Losing skilled taxonomists is tragic for the biological sciences. Unlike many leading the charge in support of taxonomy, I did not benefit from a rigorous taxonomic study in my early career. I fall into the same camp as Dr. Holly Bik, relying primarily on molecules, not morphology, to draw the distinctions between my samples. I never identified species by counting the ass-hairs on a worm, and my education is poorer for it.