Alpha taxomomy – a dead science?
Alpha taxonomy is the discipline of detecting, describing, and classifying new species, as well as revising the classification of previously described species. It is among the most tedious of all biological endeavors, involving intensive collecting and detailed observation, measurement, description, and illustration, and also sometimes gathering information at the cellular (e.g., chromosome numbers) or molecular (e.g., DNA sequences) levels. Functioning at the professional level in alpha taxonomy requires extensive training, because it is an information-intensive field: it requires detailed knowledge of centuries of previous literature, of the existing classification, and of the morphology and evolution of a particular group.
Nowadays there is little incentive for young scientists to gain training in alpha taxonomy because, although this discipline is fundamental to all other branches of biology, including biodiversity research, funding agencies view it as old fashioned. It is thus often difficult for researchers doing primarily alpha taxonomy to obtain research grants and academic positions.
Alpha taxonomy done in an academic vacuum and for its own sake is probably a thing of the past, and justifiably so. Fortunately, it can be done in such a way as to simultaneously provide crucial data on ecology, evolution, biodiversity, and biogeography, and it can be integrated with phylogenetic and phylogeographic studies.
As a case in point, our laboratory in the past 7 years has described 42 new species of marine bryozoans from the North Pacific. Our approach has been to collect intensively in local areas so that as we gather the basic material for taxonomy, we can also gather data on population-level variation in the species detected, and on their diversity, relative abundance, and ecology. We have also used material collected in these studies for DNA extraction for phylogeny reconstruction. This integrated approach has produced interesting discoveries that transcend alpha taxonomy.
Convergence in intertidal bryozoan diversity
Our previous research has shown that intertidal bryozoan associations in the North Pacific have maximum single-site diversities in suitable rocky habitat reaching about 30 species, and total local diversities among sites of about 50 to 75 species. Species diversity appears to converge on these values independent of latitude; we have surveyed high boreal (Kodiak and Ketchikan, Alaska; Akkeshi, Japan) and subtropical sites (Hawaii, USA) in the Western (Akkeshi), Eastern (Kodiak, Ketchikan), or Central Pacific (Hawaii).
We hypothesize that convergence in intertidal diversity results from the the interplay between regional (including subtidal) diversity and intertidal stress. That is, in cool-temperate areas, a greater proportion of the total species in an area can survive intertidally, but overall species richness is low. Conversely, in the tropics or subtropics, overall species richness is high, but a lower proportion of species can survive in the intertidal due to stress. We have studied only one subtropical locality (Hawaii) and need a comparable site in the Western Pacific. We have already conducted extensive intertidal collecting at several sites on the west side of Okinawa Island, Japan, and analysis of these samples will allow us to confirm convergence in intertidal bryozoan diversity at low latitudes.
Parallel evolution of the costal shield and ascus in cheilostome bryozoans
This discovery, which is described HERE and ここに, was a direct offshoot of basic taxonomy-oriented research on the bryozoan fauna in deep benthic shelf habitats in the western Aleutian Islands, Alaska, USA.
Dick MH, Mawatari, SF (2004) Resolving taxonomic problems of North Pacific bryozoans. In SF Mawatari, H Okada, (Eds.), Neo-science of Natural History: Integration of Geoscience and Biodiversity Studies, pp. 67–74, Proceedings of International Symposium on "Dawn of a New Natural History - Integration of Geoscience and Biodiversity Studies", March 5-6, 2004, Sapporo.
Dick MH, Mawatari SF (2005) Morphological and molecular concordance of Rhynchozoon clades (Bryozoa, Cheilstomata) from Alaska. Invertebrate Biology 124: 344–354.
Dick MH, Grischenko AV, Mawatari SF (2005) Intertidal Bryozoa (Cheilostomata) of Ketchikan, Alaska. Journal of Natural History 39(43): 3687–3784.
Dick MH, Tilbrook KJ, Mawatari SF (2006) Diversity and taxonomy of rocky-intertidal Bryozoa on the Island of Hawaii, USA. Journal of Natural History 40(38–40): 2197–2257.
Grischenko AV, Dick MH, Mawatari SF (2007) Diversity and taxonomy of intertidal Bryozoa (Cheilostomata) at Akkeshi Bay, Hokkaido, Japan. Journal of Natural History 41(17-20): 1047–1161.
Dick MH, Lidgard S, Gordon DP, Mawatari SF (2009) The origin of ascophoran bryozoans was historically contingent but likely. Proceeding of the Royal Society B 276: 3141–3148