Gustav Paulay, curator of invertebrate zoology at the Florida Museum of Natural History, explains that taxonomy is the ability to tell different forms of life apart and identify living things both scientifically and in everyday life. He describes how the field of taxonomy has changed over the years and ways new technologies help us identify and understand species.
Interview and videos produced by Anthony Rinaldo for Explore Research at the University of Florida.
Gustav Paulay: My favorite part in this work, of course, is being out there with the organisms in nature and in finding things that I have never seen before, and that happens pretty often for marine science. We work in shallow water and generally on reefs, which means we can access the habitat by diving, either scuba or snorkel, and I love being in the water and being among the organisms.
I enjoy working with – seeing just the beauty of nature as you swim through it, and, of course, there’s always surprises. Almost every dive you go on you find something you’ve never seen before. It may not be a new species, it may be well known, but it’s new to you, and that’s enough. That gives you quite the excitement.
Gustav Paulay: Taxonomy is our ability to tell different forms of life apart. Everybody does taxonomy. When you go to the store and you buy, you know, a beef steak or pork chops, you’re doing taxonomy. One is pork, one is beef, right? If you go out fishing and you catch a red fish or a channel bass, well that’s the same thing. We may have different names for it but taxonomically it is the same species, but they’re different than a sea trout.
All our interactions with nature involve identifying things, and taxonomy is just that, and everybody does it. There’s ‘folk’ taxonomy of, you know, what we do as the average public involved with living organisms out there, and of course doing that in a more rigorous scientific way is ‘scientific’ taxonomy.
So a good example is, you know, you bring back animals from the field. I mean right in front of me is a collection that one of our students made in Australia, and there’s a sea star. You can see how colorful the liquid is because all of the color that was in the sea star is gone. Now taxonomist would have looked at this and they had no idea what color this thing was, so color was gone unless you recorded it in the field. So in the old days much of taxonomy couldn’t rely on color because it wasn’t preserved in the specimen.
Today we can not only look at the specimens and see they’re the same, but we can also take photographs of them, we can take DNA samples from them, sequence them, and all of these help us tell species apart.
So not everything on Earth is so easy to identify and there are many reasons for it, but basically the large organisms that are close to us, the trees, the birds, especially things on land, in the ocean, the larger species like the fishes, the whales and so forth are pretty well known, but the smaller organisms, the insects, the sea stars, the crabs, worms and so forth, are pretty poorly known. So a lot of what we do has to do with coming up with the ways to tell these species apart and providing other workers and the public with tools to do so.
Learn more about Invertebrate zoology at the Florida Museum.