Taxonomists are scientists who identify, classify and name new plant and animal species throughout the world. An aspiring taxonomist must possess a strong aptitude for math and science, curiosity about the world and excellent research and writing skills.
Although more than 1 million species of plants and animals have been identified by scientists, many more are yet to be discovered or identified. University of Arizona researchers estimate that 2 billion species currently exist in the world. It’s the job of the taxonomist to discover these plant and animal species and share their findings in papers, research journal articles and presentations.
Fieldwork is an important part of the taxonomist’s duties. Whether your work involves hiking to a remote part of the Amazon rainforest or visiting a local park, you are expected to spend a considerable amount of time outdoors in all sorts of weather. Viewing plant and animal species in their natural habitats can provide valuable information and insights and form the basis of future research.
Taxonomist duties include studying the structure of a species, mapping its DNA, photographing or sketching it, and collecting specimens. Specimens may be transported to a local or field laboratory, where they are examined under a microscope and dissected.
Taxonomists decide how to classify species, explore how they fit into their ecosystems and categorize their relationships with other species. They write highly detailed descriptions of species and choose names for them. Taxonomists also identify species at risk of extinction and may play a role in the preservation of diverse ecosystems.
The ability to lift and transport equipment to remote locations is a must for a taxonomist. You must also be able to navigate hilly or difficult terrain. Taxonomists frequently work long hours, particularly when they’re in the process of classifying a new species.
In addition to enjoying outdoor work, taxonomists must excel at spotting minor details that distinguish one species from another, know how to operate a variety of laboratory machines and have strong research and writing skills. Although it can take months or years to classify a species, discovering a new species or identifying one that was previously thought to be extinct can be tremendously rewarding.
If you want to become a taxonomist, you must graduate from a four-year college or university with a major in biology, zoology, ecology, botany, forestry or another science. After receiving your Bachelor of Science degree, you decide if you want to specialize in plant or animal taxonomy and then complete a master’s degree in animal science, plant taxonomy, embryology or a related field of study. Completing a master’s degree helps you find jobs in the field, but you are more competitive if you continue your education and obtain a Ph.D.
Taxonomists are employed by universities, government agencies, research companies, museums, zoos, environmental organizations and consulting firms.
Salary and Job Outlook
The average salary for taxonomists is $73,297 per year according to SimplyHired. Although the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn't offer job growth statistics for taxonomists, it projects that jobs for agricultural and food scientists will grow by 7 percent by 2026.