Update: A condensed version of this post is published on Newsroom.co.nz here.
We may be alone. Our planet could be the only place in the universe where, over billions of years, matter became aware of itself. Despite the dazzling variety of life on Earth, all living things are united by the genetic material inside our cells–our DNA. These blueprints trace their own genealogy through all living species to converge at a single point in the ancient past. How do we make sense of the cellular machinery inside a single-celled bacteria, the cooperation within a colony of fungus-farming ants, and the camouflage abilities of shape-shifting squid? Perhaps a more pragmatic question: how do we ensure the survival of these plants, animals, fungi, and microbes on which our own survival depends?
We are only able to catalogue, classify, and understand living things on our planet because of the scientific discipline called taxonomy. Taxonomy is both the foundation of biology, and one of the most important collective achievements of biologists. And yet the funding, resources, jobs and prestige associated with this work have slowly eroded, so today we can see the bones underneath. Taxonomy is important, so we need to understand the challenges it faces before we me might nurse it back to health.