Thursday, October 6, 2011

The taxonomy crisis: nothing left to discover?

In his post Taxonomy - crisis, what crisis? Rod Page reported on a new publication by Lucas et al (in press) which contains some really provocative findings:

  • There is no decrease in the number of taxonomists, yet no 'taxonomy crisis'
  • Instead there is an increase of taxonomists since 1900
  • But there is a decline in the number of species descriptions per taxonomist
This is really interesting, especially when we remember the recently published estimates on the total number of species on Earth (ca. 8.7 Mio, Mora et. al 2011) which have also been used by the authors to illustrate the significance of taxonomists:
describing Earth's remaining species may take as long as 1,200 years and would require 303,000 taxonomists at an approximated cost of US$364 billion. With extinction rates now exceeding natural background rates by a factor of 100 to 1,000, our results also suggest that this slow advance in the description of species will lead to species becoming extinct before we know they even existed.

So what happened, are taxonomists getting lazy nowadays?

Lucas et. al. (in press) propose a different explanation:
[...] the currently decreasing numbers of species described per taxonomist over the past 50 years probably represents the effect of a declining pool of missing species.
Wait a moment.. are there too little species left to discover, thus the estimates above completely wrong?
Interesting, but the members of the TAXACOM list propose some other explanations, such as: 'we know hundreds of new species but publishing this is not funded anymore' etc.

Hard times for taxonomists...


Lucas N. Joppa, David L. Roberts, Stuart L. Pimm The population ecology and social behaviour of taxonomists Trends in Ecology & Evolution doi:10.1016/j.tree.2011.07.010

Camilo Mora, Derek P. Tittensor, Sina Adl, Alastair G. B. Simpson, Boris Worm. How Many Species Are There on Earth and in the Ocean?. PLoS Biol 9(8): e1001127. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001127

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The state of the Geoblogosphere – geoscience communication in the social web

Science blogs are new and rapidly evolving media in the social web. In the last years, several hundred geoscience professionals and students have started their own Earth science blogs. Serious concerns exist about the credibility of scientific blogs but until now, no info has been published on the geoblogosphere’s motivation and the writer’s societal and scientific backgrounds. Here we present data from an online survey with 78 participants and from analysis of more than 200 Earth science blogs.

Full article here:

Monday, May 30, 2011

Welcome to the Anthropocene

In its current issue, The Economist has published an interesting piece on "The Anthropocene - A man made world". In terms of public understanding of science it gives an interesting insight into how stratigraphy works, how palaeontology and geochemistry are used to define stratigraphical ages. It also looks at earth system science and on the interplay of human activity, climate and ocean chemistry.
Even though I do not agree with some of the suggestions on terraforming, it is the first time that I had the concept of "carbonate compensation depth" explained to me in a mainstream news magazine. I also found the example of the preservation of the ruins of a city on a fast sinking river delta highly original.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Paleontologists enter the web period

After James Landell circulated 'An Open Letter in Support of Digital Data Archiving' via the paleonet list server, a quite controversal discussion followed. This thread included almost any kind of paranoia you would expect to hear if someone asks a group of pre-web scientists to share their data.

Anyway, this letter apparantly had significant impact and NATURE editors now hope that 'Fossil data enter the web period'.. hopefully paleontologists will follow;)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Welcome in the post-taxonomic world

Rod Page reports on the growing number of unclassified and 'name less' GenBank entries in is new post 'Dark taxa: GenBank in a post-taxonomic world'.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

European Research Ranking

Last friday I published the first public beta version of a new -and very different- project: European Research Ranking is an attempt to calculate the importance of research institutions based on the publicly available CORDIS database published by the European Commission.

This database contains some basic information on projects which have been funded by the European Commission such as project funding, duration and participating institutions.

As a first approach I have defined three basic categories of which I think one could estimate the performance of a research institution within the European research area: Funding and project participantion performance, Networking activity and alliances, Diversity of research areas.
For each of these categories I have defined one or more performance indicators and based on these indicators I calculated a total score for each institution based on project CORDIS data from the year 2010.

The first results are very promising, the Top 100 list for 2010 can be visited at The clear winners of this ranking are french and german research organisations followed by well known top European universities such as the ETH, Cambridge, Leuven and Oxford.

Monday, January 24, 2011

A new ancestry for elephants

Changes in names and taxonomical classification are a common occurrence as our knowledge of species living and extinct expands. In fact, around 10% of all taxonomic names are changed every year (Nimis, 2001). The changes are mainly in the realm of microbiology where morphology is difficult to apply, but rarely in the realm of charismatic megafauna, e.g. elephants.

However, there has been a long ranging dispute on whether the African savannah elephant and the African forest elephant are merely subspecies of the African elephant (Loxodonta Africana), or whether the genus Loxodonta needs to be re-organised.

Recent work by Rohland et al. (2010) compared genetic markers of the genomes of the iconic woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) and the American mastodon (Mammut americanum) with the modern African savanna elephant, African forest elephant, and Asian elephant.

A surprising finding from our study is that the divergence of African savanna and forest elephants—which some have argued to be two populations of the same species—is about as ancient as the divergence of Asian elephants and mammoths. Given their ancient divergence, we conclude that African savanna and forest elephants should be classified as two distinct species.
As we see, there is no certainty in taxonomy. And there goes my favourite example of a stable taxonomic name.


Nimis, P. L. (2001), A tale from Bioutopia - Could a change of nomenclature bring peace
to biology's warring tribes?, Nature, 413(6851), 21, doi:10.1038/35092637.

Rohland N, Reich D, Mallick S, Meyer M, Green RE, et al. (2010) Genomic DNA Sequences from Mastodon and Woolly Mammoth Reveal Deep Speciation of Forest and Savanna Elephants. PLoS Biol 8(12): e1000564. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1000564

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

EarthObserver as iPhone App

Columbia University recently published yet another earth science application for Apple's iPhone. The app is called EarthObserver and is available from Apple's iTunes store. EarthObserver provides

  • Basemap (computer-generated color-shaded relief of land and ocean floor)
  • US Coastal Bathymetry (with color palette appropriate to provide details of bays, sounds, estuaries, harbors and rivers)
  • US Nautical Charts (paper raster and digital electronic at all scales for Atlantic, Pacific, Gulf of Mexico, Bering Sea, Arctic and Great Lakes)
  • US Topographic Sheets (entire USGS collection for US mainland, Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico)
  • Geologic Maps (entire world, by continent, by country and by US state showing formation ages, names and rock types)
  • Geophysical Maps (global earthquakes, tectonic plates and boundaries, gravity anomalies, geoid height, magnetic anomalies and the configuration of world stress)
  • Land Surface (temperatures day and night, primary productivity, vegetation index, land cover classifications and diversity, forest cover types and fragmentation)
  • NASA Visible Earth (global earth scenes for each month)
And many more. See EarthObserver's homepage for more information.