Is There a Crisis in Anolis Taxonomy?

A few days ago, I had a very interesting discussion in twitter with some colleagues (see here [1] and here [2]) about whether there is a decline and crisis of new taxonomists in amphibians and reptiles. I wonder if this situation might be the case fir Anolis lizards, or whether Anolis has its own tendency in species description. So, I decided to take the bull by the horns and I went to the Uetz Reptilia Database to see the numbers.

First, it seems that there is not an increase in species description for anoles across time. In early years, it was a bunch of new descriptions as also recently (Fig 1).


However, if you check how many anole taxonomists have described species, an interesting pattern emerges. Very few people have described almost all of anole diversity (Table 1). Only 15 anologists have described all currently known species (400 according to the Uetz database), and more interesting is the fact that only five of them are still alive! (Gunther Köhler, Orlando Garrido, James McCraine, Steven Poe and Larry Wilson; Table 1).

Table 1. Ranking of anole taxonomists by number of species described.

Table 1. Ranking of anole taxonomists by number of species described.

Then, to establish if new authors (new anole taxonomists) are emerging in recent times, I made an accumulation curve of authors across years of description (Fig. 2). I considered only the senior author (Fig. 2, top) and all authors involved in the description  (Fig. 2, bottom). From these figures, it is possible to see, apparently, that very few new authors are emerging as anole taxonomist specialists.

Accumulation of authors by year. Only senior author (top), all authors involved in the description (bottom)

Accumulation of authors by year. Only senior author (top), all authors involved in the description (bottom)

This suggests, at least to me, that something is happening in anole taxonomy. As we discussed in twitter, this scarcity in taxonomists in recent times could be due to several factors: lack of interest in describing new forms, lack of funding resources, lack of access to comparative material (i.e., herpetological collections), lack of writing skills to generate scientific papers, or lack of adequate taxonomic training. In any case, I feel that anole taxonomy would be in crisis if new people, mostly from Latin America, are not interested in describing and revising new species in each country. But, why are very few people seem to be interested in describing new valid species nowadays? Is it perhaps that taxonomy is a discipline with little interest in academia? Does doing so serve to get a job? Is it not worth publishing papers in taxonomy or even describing new forms?

Although today there are a bunch of journals oriented to taxonomy and many online resources to access to primary literature (Sci-Hub [3], BHL[4], etc.), it seems that very few people are interested to tackle these problems in our iconic lizards.

I would like to see your opinions on this






22 thoughts on “Is There a Crisis in Anolis Taxonomy?

  1. It comes down to a general lack of interest and thus finances, both for natural history collections (which are every fewer, while the remaining ones are getting bigger – thus as a whole more vulnerable for catastrophes) and for individual salaries for “classical biologists”. Of course, nowadays a collaboration with molecular biologists is necessary, but even then, to have an idea which animals (taxa) to compare, one needs to do hands-on studies both in the field and in collections as well as have years of training to gain confidence with specific groups. So ideally, first positions as assistants of the current taxonomists need to be created, which will then after a number of years change in permanent research positions. Taxonomists should not (only) be judged on the number of credits of their articles in scientific journals, because much of their work is pretty basic and will need to be accumulated before it becomes “publishable high up”. So the entire system should be set up for the specific profession of taxonomists and not blindly follow the current one for researchers in general. When this is not done, we will soon face a situation where those with the best knowledge of specific groups will be private collectors and even animal dealers, which may not always be the best for the conservation of rare (and thus financially valuable) species in nature …

  2. Hi Julián! Very interesting. Maybe some insight could be gained from considering herpetological descriptions overall. As you know well, at least in South America, the people describing anoles are also describing from amphisbaenians to treefrogs, and there’s no shortage of such new taxa.

    1. Though personally I admit that taxonomic work is way less of a priority than my phylogenetic and biogeographic work – and I was informally advised to proceed this way by members of my advisory committee. I have a number of new Amazonian frogs to describe, and unfortunately I hardly ever will.

    2. Thanks Ivan, yes, I think an closer inspection probably might reveal additional insights, but I suspect that still there are very few people “expert” in anole taxonomy

  3. all currently known species? What about Taylor’s Anolis aquaticus? For instance? And Isn’t any of the (sub-) species from Lazell recognised as species today?

  4. I used Uetz database, it has errors and is not updated (e.g., A. purpurescens still is a valid species).

    A. aquatics was included as valid species in Uetz database. I’m not sure if Lazell subspecies were elevated to species status.

    1. 1. There will be a database update in 2 weeks or so, with 10 new anoles just by Gunther Köhler (catapulting him to #1).

      2. Obviously, the low-hanging fruit in species descriptions has been collected. New species are much harder to describe, not the least because they usually require molecular data.

      3. If all 121 Anolis subspecies currently in the database are elevated to full species then Schwartz leads again by a significant margin :) But, as Rich Glor and others have nicely shown, there is a gray zone between species, subspecies, and variation, which adds to point 2.

      4. If you see omissions or errors in the Reptile Database, please send us a message using the link at the bottom of each species page. We are happy to correct it – even though it may take a few months until the next release! (still faster than most journal publications :)

    1. The “until recently” is a bit premature. Skip is alive and very much kicking, and is, in fact, the #1 commenter on Anole Annals.

    2. yes, I got the same numbers (actually, Skip is in the eighteen position!) The cut in 15 authors was very arbitrary.

      1. So Table 1 lists only the top 15 authors. The way the description is stated seems to imply that it lists all of them: “Very few people have described almost all of anole diversity (Table 1). Only 15 anologists have described all currently known species (400 according to the Uetz database) …”

        1. I was confused by this, too. So, the actual number of all unique authors, jr or senior, still living or not, is about 155?

  5. Hi Julian, very nice work. There are several issues here worthy of discussion, but I wanted to clarify the observation, first. Sorry if I am totally confused here (it happens to me with increasing frequency these days) , but if there are only 15 authors of all 400 species of Anolis, what is the Y-axis in accumulation of authors by year that reaches 330 authors? In the author-accumulation curve each author is counted one time for each year in which he (any female authors?) published?
    Since the curves end with approx. straight lines of positive slope, does this mean that we should expect the number of authors to continue to increase at a constant rate for the foreseeable future?

    1. Thanks Andrew, the actual number of authors in each one of the figures is the line referred as S means (runs), the other line is the Chao2 estimator (I put only as reference). Each author is counted one time for each year, but the increase of new authors in recent years (as first authors) is very few. As you said, probably we should expect a constant rate of increase in new authors. There are female authors as Kirsten Nicholson and Amanda Bernal, but I listed only last names and I don’t know if there are more.

      1. Hi Julian, One additional female author comes to mind – Doris Cochran. I don’t know if she described enough to make the top 15, perhaps not. But she described a few anoles, for sure. Cheers!

  6. A couple of comments on taxonomy in general. There are two issues going on. One is there is a general decline in the numbers of taxonomists, they are also an aging group. That is the average age of working taxonomists is getting older. John Iverson did a survey of this a couple of years ago and showed me the results and those were two very standout results. I think there are a number of reasons for this. Funding being an obvious one there is very little funding for pure taxonomic research, and museum collections are getting reduced support also. Another issue is its not taught anymore, not well and not in as many institutions as it was once. If it is taught what is really being taught is molecular phylogenetics which is not the same thing and is but one tool of the taxonomist. The Code is also not taught so many would not know how to describe a species in any case, and (as was pretty much demonstrated in an earlier answer) actively encouraged not to.

    The second issue is interference in taxonomic research. There is nothing more intimidating than having 20-30 people corner you at a conference, at the same time, to inform you and try to make you describe taxa the way they want, in case your curious that has happened to me. This is conservation and management interfering in taxonomy to get the result they want. They want things to remain unchanged, unless there is a particular use for a highly endemic species that can be declared endangered. Please do not say that does not happen that’s what those 20 odd people were trying to do. Taxonomy is a basal level research used by all wildlife science, and must be independent. There is an old adage in taxonomy which is often not followed these days. Refute it, or accept it. In other words if I describe a species, with science, then to decide to sink it you have to produce science to refute it. Too many opinion pieces nowadays to try and refute taxonomy. Tends to drive people away from this science when their work can be overturned by another persons viewpoint or opinion.

    So in a nutshell that’s what I see is the issue in taxonomy.

  7. Related to taxonomy, I can’t tell you how many times (even in the last week) I have read comments to the effect: “someone needed something to write about to get a PhD” which is mind boggling to me because I currently have more ideas for PhD projects than I can possibly count. There will never be enough time or funding. But, why wouldn’t there be many taxonomist? Well, for one, the comment above is enough to make people think it is a less than noble and time-worthy effort, but regarding your thoughts:

    1) lack of interest in describing new forms…Doubtful, I know I and many others would love to spend time describing herp species, whether it be anoles or any other group.

    2) lack of funding resources…as others have expressed, I think this is a Big one. I’ve said for years that if someone would pay me to count scales all day, that would be my dream job (I don’t mean restricting myself to counting scales, but taxonomy sounds great), but nobody seems to have the money. Just finding someone to train you is extremely competitive, because hardly anyone has money, and the little money related to this that some do have is generally not primarily for taxonomy itself. When individuals do have money, they want someone well-trained, primarily in phylogenetics, prior to starting with them; it seems they don’t want to teach it. This is killing off a lot of would-be taxonomists early in their careers.

    3) lack of access to comparative material (i.e., herpetological collections)…whereas comparative museums and collections are quite apparently being funded less, there is plenty of material to explore even in existing collections, so this may be part of the problem, but I don’t think it is necessarily a major obstacle.

    4) lack of writing skills to generate scientific papers…having read a heck of a lot of taxonomic literature, I don’t think taxonomy requires the best writing skills, so I hardly see this as a major obstacle.

    5) lack of adequate taxonomic training…I think this coincides with funding and interest of funding agencies to a great extent, but also the desire and willingness of the older generation of taxonomists to make what they do relevant to the younger generations, and to actively teach it.

    Paul’s comment, “we will soon face a situation where those with the best knowledge of specific groups will be private collectors and even animal dealers” is already the case for many groups. For one thing, many biologists spend too much time in the lab and not in the field anymore (it may not be their fault, as field biology has, in some ways, become more difficult to publish and fund, and so efforts are focused on lab work and even administration instead). I heard a colleague say, “there isn’t room or need for field biologists anymore,” and this sentiment is extremely common, and commonly taught. I find it horrifying.

    Unfortunately, although I believe there is individual interest in doing taxonomic work, as Paul points out, simply describing a species doesn’t necessarily draw citations, and that is another misplaced priority of the academic community.

    Scott’s point is also highly relevant. The controversy in taxonomy is enough to dissuade many onlookers from getting involved, and it seems difficult to just find an advisor that doesn’t seem so highly opinionated that one would automatically end up with many adversaries by working with him or her. We observe Kaiser et al. 2013, and all the players involved in that, wee see all the responses to Burbrink’s many works…regardless of who is correct about what, many scientists don’t want the drama, and it seems unavoidable in taxonomy.

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