Systematic and Evolutionary Biology

Carole Hickman, Department of Integrative Biology
University of California, Berkeley, California

What themes unify systematic and evolutionary biology?

Systematics is the study of patterns of diversity in living and fossil organisms. It is the foundation of organismal biology. The theory of evolution, which unifies modern biology, emerged from systematics.

Systematists have united globally to state their mission and agenda for the year 2000. The three elements of this mission are to: discover, describe, and inventory global species diversity.

analyze and synthesize information derived from this global discovery effort into a predictive classification system that reflects the history of life.

organize information from this global program into an efficiently retrievable form that best meets the needs of science and society.

How diverse is the field of systematics?

Systematics includes:

Taxonomy - the naming, describing and classification of all living and fossil organisms.

Phylogenetic analysis - the discovery of relationships of organisms, reconstruction of evolutionary lineages, and reconstruction of patterns of evolutionary history which include the physical and biological environmental settings in which change occurred.

Systematics is also an essential component of other fields such as:

Biogeography - the mapping of the distributions of species.

Ecology - an understanding of the habitats and environmental factors that control the distributions of species.

Conservation biology and biological resource management.

How did you and other colleagues become
interested in systematics?

Many become interested as children, curious about the names and habits of plants and animals through: watching birds; collecting fossils; pressing plants; feeding caterpillars to watch them pupate and emerge as moths or butterflies; collecting shells on a beach; or watching fish while snorkeling on coral reefs. Some specialize on a group of organisms as a result of childhood curiosity about that group. Still others develop their interest later and have specific questions in mind: What makes some species prone toward extinction? How does the evolutionary diversification of lineages occur? Do new species originate rapidly or very slowly? What species might contain compounds that could lead to important new medicines?

Why is your field exciting?

Systematics involves exploration, discovery and fieldwork. There are so many kinds of plants and animals occurring in so many different environments. Systematics integrates many kinds of biological information at many different levels, from molecules to living organisms in ecosystems. It is the discipline that synthesizes all of biology and underlies all research in biology.

How does systematic zoology help society? Why should the public care?

Systematics is essential to identifying species that are important for human health and food production and for the protection, conservation and maintenance of functioning ecosystems. It also provides the evidence for naming organisms, which is the basis of all scientific and popular communication about organisms. Systematics guides the search for useful biological products, biological control agents and potential food crop species. Systematics provides information to policy makers to guide decisions for resource management. Humanity also benefits from knowledge of the aesthetic values of biological diversity.

What is a typical day like?

A day in the field may begin before sunrise and end after sunset. It may involve collecting or recording data on paper or film or tape cassette. A day in the laboratory may involve anything from observing live organisms to dissection to recording measurements. Some systematic research involves compiling and manipulating very large computer databases. Many systematists compare and integrate information from scanning or transmission electron microscopy, confocal microscopy, and a range of exciting new technologies for imaging organismal form and structure.

What other jobs are there in systematics besides those in academia or research labs?

Many systematists are employed by: museums with systematic reference collections, resource management agencies (forestry, fisheries, wildlife), conservation agencies and environmental consulting firms.