Taxonomy – an animal obsession

The weather has descended upon us. Gale-force winds and a 9 m swell have made it impossible to deploy any more gear for today, but, fear not, for in this breather from our frenzied sampling, there is finally time for us taxonomists to delve into the collections already made.
FYI – taxonomists are scientists with an unnatural obsession with categorising every specimen they get their paws on of usually just one group of organisms – e.g. just deep-sea spiders, or just Antarctic deep-sea spiders… I kid you not. Some may call us myopic in our focus but it’s the in-depth knowledge of one group of organisms that makes that special species-level identification possible. Species-level is after all what most diversity assessments are after.

Taxonomists are known for deriding other taxonomists’ choice of study organism: “worms, who would study worms???”, “tell me, what exactly is the point of molluscs?”, and, my personal favourite so far, “you study sponges… why, just why?” – said when finding a sponge squashed literally between a rock and a hard place…another rock. All this is said in jest and lovingly of course; it’s the academic equivalent of mocking someone’s football team, without the cup finals (unless you are a Man City fan that is, we do cup finals).

I, Michelle, am a deep-sea soft coral taxonomist and, since reaching the northern shores of South Orkneys, I’ve had a sample bonanza. Corals galore. I will now be spending the rock and rolling hours we have left on shift identifying these beautiful animals. Incidentally, of beautiful and important soft corals found so far (cough, listed as vulnerable marine ecosystems by the UN, cough – just sayin’) one doesn’t look like any I’ve seen before…. Drum roll….. new species! Which brings me onto a taxonomist’s other job, describing newly-discovered species. And before you ask, no I cannot name it after you, or myself for that matter (that’s considered too self-indulgent by fellow taxonomists). So, without further ado, I’m off to measure colonies, count polyps and illustrate this new and exciting coral of the deep.