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The role of taxonomy in conserving biodiversity

The term “alpha taxonomy” is primarily used today to refer to the discipline of finding, describing, and naming taxa, particularly species.[12] In earlier literature, the term had a different meaning, referring to morphological taxonomy, and the products of research through the end of the 19th century.[13]

William Bertram Turrill introduced the term “alpha taxonomy” in a series of papers published in 1935 and 1937 in which he discussed the philosophy and possible future directions of the discipline of taxonomy.[14]

… there is an increasing desire amongst taxonomists to consider their problems from wider viewpoints, to investigate the possibilities of closer co-operation with their cytological, ecological and genetical colleagues and to acknowledge that some revision or expansion, perhaps of a drastic nature, of their aims and methods, may be desirable … Turrill (1935) has suggested that while accepting the older invaluable taxonomy, based on structure, and conveniently designated “alpha”, it is possible to glimpse a far-distant taxonomy built upon as wide a basis of morphological and physiological facts as possible, and one in which “place is found for all observational and experimental data relating, even if indirectly, to the constitution, subdivision, origin, and behaviour of species and other taxonomic groups”. Ideals can, it may be said, never be completely realized. They have, however, a great value of acting as permanent stimulants, and if we have some, even vague, ideal of an “omega” taxonomy we may progress a little way down the Greek alphabet. Some of us please ourselves by thinking we are now groping in a “beta” taxonomy.[14]

Turrill thus explicitly excludes from alpha taxonomy various areas of study that he includes within taxonomy as a whole, such as ecology, physiology, genetics, and cytology. He further excludes phylogenetic reconstruction from alpha taxonomy (pp. 365–366).

Later authors have used the term in a different sense, to mean the delimitation of species (not subspecies or taxa of other ranks), using whatever investigative techniques are available, and including sophisticated computational or laboratory techniques.[15][12] Thus, Ernst Mayr in 1968 defined beta taxonomy as the classification of ranks higher than species.[16]

An understanding of the biological meaning of variation and of the evolutionary origin of groups of related species is even more important for the second stage of taxonomic activity, the sorting of species into groups of relatives (“taxa”) and their arrangement in a hierarchy of higher categories. This activity is what the term classification denotes; it is also referred to as beta taxonomy.