SYSTEMATICS: THE STUDY OF COLLECTIONS

A universal human activity is giving names to the diverse organisms inhabiting the world. It is by this means that communication is made possible. But these are not random: similarities between organisms are often reflected in their names. For example, the Red Fox and Kit Fox are recognized as different kinds of foxes, more like one another than either is like the many kinds of zebras or bats.

A variety of features are considered in deciding how alike two kinds of organisms are. These include anatomy, physiology,ecology, and biochemistry. Systematics is the science of naming organisms and arranging them into groups based on shared similarities. Most of the scientists at California Academy of Sciences engage in the study of systematics.

Systematics provide other biologists with names for organisms. Each kind (species) and group of plants, and animals, fungi, single-celled organisms, and bacteria has an official and unique two-part Latin name (genus first, species second) recognized by scientists throughout the world. This formal system of nomenclature was devised by the Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus in the eighteenth century when Latin was the language of the scholars. Thus, the Red Fox is Vulpes fulva and the Kit Fox is Vulpes velox. Assemblages of species such as families and phyla also are given names.

A systematist who discovers a new species may name it. In order that a new name be recognized by other scientists, a systematist must publish a written description that distinguishes the newly named species from all other known, similar species. But the written description alone is usually insufficient because it cannot distinguish its subject from species discovered subsequently, nor does it deal with features unknown or unappreciated at the time of the original description. So systematists choose one specimen of a new species as the "type specimen." If there are questions about what species the describer was actually dealing with, the type specimen, which serves as a standard, can be examined.

A type specimen should be deposited in a museum where scientists can examine it. Preserving type specimens and making them available to scholars is a primary function of natural history museums. The California Academy of Sciences holds 40,000 type specimens, including those for the well-known northern fur seal and golden trout (the California state fish).

A single type specimen, however, is insufficient to represent accurately an entire species. Individuals of a species may differ with age, sex, and area of origin, for example. In the progress of naming organisms and studying their relationships, systematists collect many specimens. Therefore, natural history museum collections as we know them came into being along with the science of systematics.

The Academy's collections have been enriched by donations from both amateur and professional systematists, and from expeditions sponsored by the Academy. The more complete the collections, the more useful they are as biological reference libraries. A systematic collection of accurately labeled specimens, backed by an expert staff, constitutes a basic and indispensable resource for research. The research resulting from study of these specimens extends far beyond the description of new species and their relationships. Natural history field guides are based largely on museum collections, as are many of the range and abundance data in environmental impact reports. In addition to serving as an information source, collections are repositories of some of the materials gathered in environmental and ecological work. These "voucher specimens" can be used to check that identifications have been made correctly.

Petroleum geologists use collections to ascertain the identity of fossils with oil deposits; the U.S. Customs Office looks to botany collections for help in identifying imported plants; and farmers and gardeners query Academy researchers about plant pests and their biological control. Precise identification is particularly critical when confusion of related species are indicators of environmental pollution, while similar ones are not. In determining which antivenin to administer physicians confer with systematists to distinguish between species of venomous snakes.

The Academy's collections constitute a valuable and irreplaceable resource, not only for the nation but for humanity in general, as attested by generous support received for its maintenance and growth from the National Science Foundation and other sources, both public and private. But despite the vigorous activity of numerous research institutions such as the Academy, the task of inventorying the life of the planet is far from complete. Only a million, many of them in tropical regions, may still remain to be discovered and described.