What is biological systematics?

Biological systematics is the scientific study of the diversity of living things and of the natural relationships among them.

Systematics is sometimes thought of as two separate activities: taxonomy and systematics 'proper'. Taxonomists discover, describe, name and classify new forms of life, and identify already known forms. Systematists 'proper' attempt to reconstruct the evolutionary history, or phylogeny, of the organisms they study. In the real world, however, the same people often do both taxonomy and phylogenetic analysis. These scientists are best called systematists.

What systematists do is fundamental to understanding, managing and conserving Earth's biological resources. They are much more than just the people who label and catalogue the specimens in museums and herbaria.

To begin with, most systematists are fieldworkers, and some are passionate about the organisms they study. A systematist who specialises in a particular group of animals or plants is often an expert source of information on the life history and ecology of species in that group, and on how that group is affected by natural and man-made disturbances. For less well-known groups, the systematist may be the only reliable source of such information.

Systematists are evolutionary biologists. Biological classifications are designed to reflect the real evolutionary history of species and higher groupings. Systematists constantly work to make that history more accurate by using morphological and molecular evidence of relationships. The tools used are now very sophisticated. Decisions about which evolutionary tree is more likely to be correct are today based far more often on statistical inference than on personal judgement. Trees of this kind can be critically important for decision-making in medicine, conservation, resource management and pest control.

Systematists are biogeographers. Conservation actions usually start with drawing lines on maps, and if those lines are to have any biological meaning, they need to accurately reflect the distributions of the species and ecological communities being conserved (1). Systematists collect and carefully check distribution records, publish the records and often add the records to distribution databases accessible through the Web.

Finally, systematists are information managers who collect, store and analyse enormous amounts of data. Systematics is now one of the most information-dense and computer-intensive specialties in biology.

(1) For documentation of just how important this locality information can be, see Uses of Primary Species-Occurrence Data (GBIF, 2005).