Systematics

Current systematic research associated with the herbarium concentrates on dogwoods (Cornaceae), buckeyes (Hippocastanaceae), legumes (Fabaceae), sunflower relatives (Asteraceae), climbing milkweeds (Apocynaceae - Asclepiadoideae) and more.  Please see our personnel page for a list of researchers and their programs. 

In addition, our floristic research program also directly contributes to systematic studies through our DNA banking initiative.  A unique attribute of this initiative in North Carolina is its focus on the scale of florulas, rather than select taxa.  Collecting in silica, in addition to making regular vouchers, was trialed in 2008 and is now the standard practice by floristic researchers at NCSC

To provide additional information about Systematics in general, the following has been excerpted from "Careers in Biological Systematics," produced by the American Society of Plant Taxonomists (ASPT) in collaboration with the Society of Systematic Zoology.  More detail, including information on careers in Systematics, can be found on the ASPT website.

What is Systematics?

Systematics, or Taxonomy, is the study of the kinds of organisms of the past and living today, and of the relationships among these organisms. Systematists collect and study the variety of plants and animals and group them according to patterns of variation. Systematists are also vitally interested in determining the evolutionary history of species and the features that result in adaptation to the environment. To understand the pattern of variation and relationships among the organisms, Systematists study plants and animals in nature, in museums, and in laboratories.

The discovery of a new or exotic species in the rain forest of the Amazon Basin, the mountains of Africa, the deserts of Australia, etc., remains an exciting experience. The Systematist who discovers a previously unknown species has the opportunity to name the species and to provide the world with a diagnostic description of the newly known plant or animal. Equally thrilling to a Systematist is the realization that two populations of organisms that appear similar have different chromosome numbers or different reproductive behaviour, or occur in very different environments. At the root of all these tasks is the challenge of developing a classification for the myriad forms of life, a classification based on differences and similarities of features such as form, distribution, chromosome number, behaviour, biochemical pathways, and molecular structure.

Systematists also attempt to make sense of classifications in light of evolution. Theodosius Dobzhansky, a famous student of evolution said, "Nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution." To understand evolution, some Systematists analyze the scientific basis of classifications, while others delve into the dynamic aspects of nature, studying such things as the processes that lead to the origin of species, interactions among organisms, and equilibrium states in communities. Other Systematists, concerned over the loss of natural habitats and the degradation of the environment through the expansion of human activities, study the impact of people on the ecosystems of the world and the resultant changes in the biology of the species included.

What do Systematists do?

Systematists still roam the planet seeking to describe and catalog the diversity of plants and animals, or to discover potential new crops or drug plants. Other Systematists may screen potential drug plants for active compounds and determine their molecular structure. For instance, Systematists were influential in realizing the relationships among malaria and stickle cell anemia in tropical Africa. Systematists may study the impact of a planned commercial development on a wetland and its inclusive species, or determine whether waste effluents will have an effect on the sea grasses of an estuary and, ultimately, on the fish that feed in the waters. But the primary result of Systematics is satisfaction of the inherent human drive to arrange and to classify things.

Many Systematists also teach. Just as there is great satisfaction in carrying out research and discovering facts and processes new to science, so too is there satisfaction in passing on to others accumulated knowledge and wisdom. Not only do you educate future biologists, but most probably you will have a hand in the intellectual development of other scientists and citizens.

Some Systematists also become curators. Curators conduct research and care for collections of plants or animals in small or large private or public collections. But first and foremost, Systematists classify organisms. They bring order to chaos by trying to discover the natural relationships and patterns of variation among living creatures.

How is Systematics relevant to Society?

Homo sapiens as a biological species is affecting its own environment and the environments of other species to an extent unprecedented in the history of life. At other times, other groups were dominant - fish, reptiles, for example, but at present a single species has come to predominate. To understand the impact that we are having on both our local environment and on more global ecological systems, we first need to know what species compose the relevant biological communities today, what is the geological and ecological history of the communities, and what processes are likely to enhance their survival in the future. These analyses, plus a knowledge of how evolution operates, help us understand and anticipate what the effects of today's activities will have on the future of the world. Systematists also write the manuals that help environmentalists identify organisms that form our biota, some of which are endangered by man's activities.

At a more practical level, Systematists are involved in designing and implementing effective programs of biological control of pests and diseases. Knowledge is power, and knowledge of an organism's relationships with other species permits us to develop means of controlling their numbers.

Studies of the variability and relationships of domesticated plant and animal species and their non-domesticated wild relatives are an important facet of the work of some Systematists. Such research has led to significant improvements in the yield, disease resistance, and vigour of most of our food plants and domesticated animals.

Systematists aid in the efficient discovery of medicinal drugs from plants because they can use their knowledge of evolutionary relationships to guide chemists in choosing the best species to test. Systematists often serve as consultants to poison-control centers of local hospitals because doctors need immediate, correct identifications of mushrooms, snakes, and other potentially poisonous plants or animals.

Because the task of classifying plants and animals is so monumental, Systematists have made significant use of computers to help store information so that it is easily retrievable. For example, a plant physiologist may wish to know if there is a change of leaf size or shape in a particular species of plant with a change in growth conditions. A water-quality worker may wish to know what species of algae or fishes are present in a particular lake or river and where they are distributed in it. Systematists are able to answer such questions.

What are some exciting areas of current systematic research?

The realization that the great continents as we now know them were once part of a single gigantic land mass and have gradually drifted apart over the millennia has forced Systematists to rethink earlier work on biogeography. Not only do organisms move, so do continents!

Although in the past much Systematic research was based upon morphological and anatomical similarities, the ability of biochemists to describe the structure of certain proteins and to compare the similarity of such genetically important molecules as DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) in different organisms has provided another approach to the understanding of the relationships of various species to one another. Chemical taxonomy not only provides more data for the Systematist, but also can help to determine the parents of suspected plant and animal hybrids.

Both scanning (SEM) and transmission electron microscopy (TEM) have become important and widely used tools in Systematic studies. With the SEM, new features of organisms are revealed in dramatic, 3-dimensional detail.

The comparative study of behavioral patterns of different species also provides new insights into the recognition and possible origins of species. Electronic analysis of the calls of frogs, cicadas, and other animals has offered an entirely new way to identify species and to study mechanisms of their evolution. Sometimes similar adaptive feature or behavioral traits are found to have evolved independently in unrelated organisms.

Many wonderful ecological areas of the earth are just beginning to be analyzed in detail. These include the ocean, the sea shore, the canopy of tropical rain forests, ancient deserts, mountain tops, and islands. Systematic studies and exploration in these areas sometimes include the excitement of finding new species or finding a known one far out of its expected range. The study of several kinds of organisms evolving together, called co-evolution is also an expanding area of Systematic research.

The field of Systematics is so broad that no one person can possibly hope to make contributions to all of the above areas. Instead, Systematists choose a particular group of organisms of special interest and the best method to use in studying it. Only with numerous biologists working together can we hope to map the diversity and dynamics of nature.

What tools do Systematists use?

Many Systematists use little more than pencil, paper, and their own natural faculties in studying organisms. Important and highly sophisticated work need not require expensive equipment. There is no substitute for an incisive, inquisitive mind. But became many organisms or part of them cannot be seen well with the naked eye. Systematists commonly use a light microscope for detailed study of small organisms, tissues, or cell contents such as chromosomes. Use of the transmission and scanning electron microscopes permits even greater magnification and resolution.

Other Systematists interested in the study of geographic variation of chemical constituents or in evolutionary relationships use biochemical approaches and machinery. Systematists often must grow their own organisms in greenhouses, growth chambers, and animal-rearing facilities; such specially raised plants and animals are needed to obtain homogeneous samples with known histories or to study comparative developmental sequences in related organisms. Field Systematists not only require special tools (fish nets, insect nets, tree-climbing gear, digging tools, geologist's pick, etc.) to obtain specimens, but also need special equipment to keep the organisms alive or to process them quickly and to prepare them for laboratory study. Finally, both the storage and analysis of large data sets resulting from such studies often require the use of computers.