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Interview with a leading taxonomist: Chris Lyal (Natural History Museum, London)

These are the key notes from the interview. We thank Chris Lyal for this insightful conversation!

Chris Lyal (Natural History Museum, London) works on the naming and classification of Weevils.

1. Why is taxonomy important to you, why are you fascinated by it?

There are 4,000 species of mammals and 220,000 species of Weevils. While saving the mammals is important there are more insects and microorganisms in the world.

The rainforest needs saving but insects are the glue that holds the rainforest together. If we don´t understand the insects we can´t save the rainforest.

Taxonomy is a philosophy of life: We have to know what is around us to manage the world we live in.

Example 1: In an automotive factory what would happen if auto parts arrived in unlabeled boxes. How would you know what they were and where they went in the factory

Example 2: Lice – some infect children by nesting in their hair, others spread typhus. When developing an insecticide to kill the typhus spreading bug you have to ensure you are killing the right one. Otherwise you waste millions of dollars in research and production.

Example 3: Water weed has been brought to some lakes as a decoration from other habitats. The water weed spreads when out living in its natural habitat creating a mat of water weed which kills fish and breeds mosquitoes that carry malaria. Weevils eat water weed but you have to have the right kind of Weevil. We are becoming a more global society and insect’s don´t respect boundaries. You need taxonomy to get it right!

2. Why according to your personal opinion would people be interested in donating to taxonomy?

The most common question in Taxonomy is: WHAT IS IT? We need to answer this question!!!!!

Taxonomic knowledge is useful, or rather absolutely crucial for people. We need taxonomy to ensure that:
- Crops get pollinated
- Imports are brought into countries legally and protects the environment
- The wood for building houses comes from legal forests

3. Who would you say are the main users of taxonomy knowledge besides other taxonomists?

Everyone!!! • Pharmaceuticals • Ecologists (scientists in general) • Advisors of agriculture • Governments (quarantines)

4. What would you say are the main organizations, initiatives, or causes that compete with taxonomy for donations or grants?

Today people relate more to furry, cuddly mammals and prefer to donate money to these causes. Funding is actively decreasing for taxonomy because taxonomy is not in fashion and is typically expensive for some other countries to afford a taxonomist.

Example: In the UK the salaries are high. A project was proposed between an organization in Costa Rica and me. When I began proposing a contract relating to costs the organization asked: “Why should we pay you more than we pay our president”

5. How is taxonomy related to biodiversity?

Biodiversity was created/defined by a taxonomist. Taxonomy is the foundation of biodiversity. You can´t understand ecosystems, distinguishing between species etc. without taxonomic knowledge.

6. Are there any interesting things about taxonomy that people are not aware of but should be?

An interesting fact is in regards to the names of species:

Example 1: the Idea ( e-day-a) butterfly - when a new species is discovered in a new country it is called “a-new-idea-from-XXX”

Example 2: A new species of a fly was found in a government warehouse surrounding a crate of ginger. The warehouse burned down the next day and the fly was named “Arsoni”.

Species are currently named after people for giving large donations, but there are problems. If there is a mistake after naming the species… finding out that it has already been discovered do they have to give the money back?

To solve this problem maybe this project can allow people to sponsor a species and give money to help the species of their choice.