Naming Species Before They Disappear

Female Orsonwelles spiders of different species i

Female Orsonwelles spiders of different species exhibit different copulatory organs. On the left, the Orsonwelles malus from Kauai has a much larger organ — called the epigynum — on its abdomen than the Orsonwelles graphicus from Hawaii on the right. Gustavo Hormiga hide caption

itoggle caption Gustavo Hormiga
Female Orsonwelles spiders of different species

Female Orsonwelles spiders of different species exhibit different copulatory organs. On the left, the Orsonwelles malus from Kauai has a much larger organ — called the epigynum — on its abdomen than the Orsonwelles graphicus from Hawaii on the right.

Gustavo Hormiga

Gustavo Hormiga is an arachnologist and a taxonomist, that is, a scientist who discovers, classifies and names life on earth. Taxonomy is one of the oldest fields of biology, but for a long time it seemed a little fuddy-duddy and out of fashion. In an age of climate change and growing habitat destruction, however, Hormiga says it couldn't be more hip or important.

"We know the amount of deforestation going on. ... You know when they wipe out that mountain slope in Ecuador or in the Andes, there are a lot of things that live there that don't live anywhere else," Hormiga says. "If those species have not been collected — if they have not been described or named — if they have not been stored, we would not have the hard evidence that those species existed. We have extinction going on at a massive scale, so field work is extremely important, to collect and document those species before they disappear."

Hormiga spends a good part of his year combing the forests of Australia, China and North America for spiders. Jacki Lyden caught up with him at his lab at George Washington University to get a first-hand look about how a taxonomist goes about the daily grind of drawing new branches to the tree of life.

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