The Big L

Every community has its legends. If you are the literary type, Shakespeare and Chaucer are elevated to superhuman status. To the military folk, Alexander the Great is usually cited as the greatest commander of all time. And as for biologists, the top of the mountain is usually occupied by Charles Darwin. But there is a man whose contributions were integral to Darwin’s discoveries. I am talking about the grandfather of all taxonomists: Carl Linnaeus.


Calappa hepatica (Linnaeus, 1758), from Hoga, Indonesia

The man behind the classification scheme we still use today, Linnaeus was the first person to describe species the way we do now. And because of that, he started on the far left of the collector’s curve. Imagine a reality where literally everything was a new species? I don’t know if I would be more ecstatic or overwhelmed.


Mantis religiosa (Linnaeus, 1758), from Davis, California

Linnaeus described over 13,000 species, of which about two thirds were plants. It’s amazing to think of the breadth of organisms that Linnaeus studied. I remember a few weeks ago remarking to a friend how impressive Brian Kensley’s contributions to both eucarid and peracarid crustaceans were. To compare to the big L, you would have to scale that from the difference between superorders to the difference between kingdoms!


Dromia dormia (Linnaeus, 1763), from Maui, Hawai’i

Of course it is unfair to compare the contributions of modern taxonomists to Linnaeus, as the detail expected of modern descriptions far exceeds many of his. Also, Linnaeus gobbled the lowest hanging fruit. Many of the species he described are conspicuous, widespread, or seemingly omnipresent. Among these are the dog (Canis familiaris), the horse (Equus ferus caballus), the housefly (Musca domestica) and the human (Homo sapiens).


Gasteracantha cancriformis (Linnaeus, 1758), from Fort Meyers, Florida

While it is important to see his contributions in context, even that context does little to reduce the magnitude of his accomplishments. In addition to being the father of taxonomy, he also was the first to use a thermometer in the modern style as well as the first to successfully grow bananas in Europe. And Linnaeus himself was aware of his prolific stature, saying once “God creates, Linnaeus arranges.”

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