Below, is some explanation of the three main areas I work on, as well as a quick primer on the importance of institutions such as museums (and their collections) for Science.
The word “taxonomy” comes from the Greek, meaning roughly “method of arrangement”. It is the branch of Biology responsible for defining groups of organisms based on shared characteristics (inherited from a common ancestor) and for giving names to these groups. In taxonomic parlance, a group is called a “taxon”, irrespective of rank; the plural form is “taxa”. The taxonomic ranks are defined as a hierarchy and everyone should be familiar with the line of “Kingdom”, “Phylum”, “Class”, “Order”, “Family”, “Genus”, “Species”. (The field called “Systematics” is often used interchangeably with Taxonomy; or one is considered to be part of the other.)
The founder of Taxonomy is the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus; thus, our present system of classifying organisms is known as “Linnaean classification“. This includes the so-called “binomial nomenclature” for naming organisms; for instance, everyone knows the two-parts name of our species, Homo sapiens.
Taxonomy has recently been ignored by the rest of Biology and oftentimes vilified as “stamp-collecting”, making it presently “out of vogue”. But this is a grave mistake, since this field of study it is the basis of all biological research. Just imagine: if an ecologist is not aware of the complex of species or subspecies he/she is dealing with and just plain ignore their relationship, how can we trust any of his/her conclusions? The answer is: we usually can’t. A solid taxonomic foundation is paramount for any follow-up studies in other areas, such as ecology or biogeography. Only if we get our species names and relationships right in the first place, we can produce worthwhile conclusions in other fields of study.
Museums and universities house collections of natural history material, be it plants, animals or minerals. The museums’ public exhibits are an important part of their raison d’être, but it is not their main goal. The primary role of a natural history museum is to provide the scientific community with specimens for research. These specimens are housed in the museums’ vast collections and studying them is an important part in improving our understanding of the natural world.
Museum collections serves many purposes: from storing a huge amount of information on biodiversity (present and past) to harboring still undiscovered species, going through guaranteeing that the repeatability of scientific endeavors is maintained.
So let us start with the last one. Whenever a biologist study some natural population, he/she should deposit specimens in a museum collection (these are called “voucher specimens”). First of all, this practice renders this biologist’s work verifiable by allowing future researchers to re-analyze the material. (The specimens themselves, and not tables or databases, are the primary data and thus central for repeatability in science. Therefore, making vouchers available is not only desirable but also mandatory, since failing to do so makes the research unverifiable.
The series of museum specimens, collected since centuries ago, allows long-term studies. By comparing data from decades ago recovered from museum specimens with current data, it is possible to trace changes in species distributions, such as reductions in the area inhabited by native species or the advancing of an invasive species, and also assess the effects of climate change on wild populations. As our own species is rapidly killing everything else, museum collections might soon be the only window we have left to look at the natural world.
Last but not least, it is often the case of a researcher or student, while wandering the cabinet-filled corridors of a collection, finding an entirely new species. Several specimens are cataloged in the museum and overlooked, and might just lay there inside a drawer for ages.