Posted by: Dan | May 8, 2007

Taxonomy: What’s in a Name

From Birdscope’s Elizabeth Quill and Miyoko Chu: What’s in a Name?, or, Science drives the often-bewildering changes to species check-lists.

The check-list’s scientific frontier is not in the actual discovery of new species (the last such addition was Gunnison Sage-Grouse in 2000) but in new evidence about already known birds. For example, the Black-bellied Storm-Petrel breeds on islands in the Southern Hemisphere but migrates north across the oceans in winter; it joined the list of North American birds for the first time last year after a new sighting off the coast of North Carolina.

Recent scientific information may also shift ornithologists’ views of a bird, affirming its uniqueness—in which case it may be listed as a new species—or finding that it is too similar to another group to be called its own species. New methods for studying bird behavior and genetics are helping to redefine the relationships of birds, said Irby Lovette, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Fuller Evolutionary Biology Program and a new member of the AOU check-list committee. “We are getting a lot better at describing diversity,” he said.

Or, from the citizen-science perspective, it gives a shortcut for non-experts to identify and follow the intricacy of ecosystems in our backyard. Non-experts such as myself can even help the ornithologists by entering our observations into databases, such as eBird.

Knowledge is appreciation, and classification is a way to acquire knowledge.


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