Could Amateur Taxonomists Catalog Earth's Fauna?

Taxonomy has a reputation as one of science's least glamorous fields, and experts have been sounding an alarm over declining funding and a global dearth of practitioners. With extinctions estimated to outnumber discoveries of new species and many of Earth's most diverse taxa still unaccounted for, they say the effort to identify and catalog organisms is more critical than ever before. Now some researchers are calling for taxonomists to open wide their profession's gates to amateur scientists, as the popular GalaxyZoo Web site has begun to do with citizen astronomers.

"It's a little easy to stereotype, but there are a lot of my professional colleagues out there who won't accept these amateurs," says David Pearson, a tiger beetle specialist at Arizona State University, Tempe.

Yet so little is known about so many organisms that amateurs can easily make serious contributions, says Pearson. In fact, Pearson was introduced to tiger beetles as a kid by a man who he calls the "Pro-Am of Pro-Ams" (a term short for "professional-amateur"). Ronald Huber, a retired railroad worker from suburban Minneapolis who never finished college, is one of the world's foremost tiger-beetle experts.

In 1969, he started a quarterly journal on the group, Cicindela, which he has been publishing ever since. For years Huber says he slept just 4 or 5 hours a night to make time for both his job and his beetles. "If the passion is there it doesn't matter if you work in the field or if you just do it on the side on your own," he says.

Along with having the dedication, time, and some money to devote to their hobby, Pearson says, amateurs tend to be extremely bright, eager to learn, and quite capable of the basic descriptive science that many professionals no longer have the funding to do. He says that's certainly the case with the dentist and two lawyers who regularly help him collect beetles in Bolivia, paying their own and some of his graduate students' expenses. The three approached Pearson independently, looking for opportunities to help out.

There are less all-consuming ways to for people to participate, as well. These include numerous citizen science programs like the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Project Feeder Watch, which has people identify their backyard birds and submit them to a Web site for research purposes, And the Encyclopedia of Life, an online database intended to document all forms of life and encourage the public to contribute photos, videos, and information.

In a January BioScience paper called "Recovery Plan for the Endangered Taxonomy Profession," Pearson and two co-authors pointed out that while in recent decades taxonomy has grown to be quite specialized, technological advances are quickly lowering the bar for participating as the field goes digital.

Jellyfish biologist Antonio Marques of the University of São Paulo in Brazil agrees that so long as the peer review process assures research quality, it shouldn't matter whether papers' authors have Ph.D.s. But whereas attractive creatures like birds and beetles draw plenty of amateurs and professionals alike, when it comes to humble groups like jellyfish and nematodes, he says, "I don't think that amateurs are going to do the job."

Another limitation is that amateurs tend to be knowledgeable at the local level, but continental-scale expertise is essential to truly understand a given organism, says Joel Cracraft, an ornithologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. While amateurs can certainly contribute, Cracraft says, "They are not going to be the solution to the problem."

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