By David Williams and Greg Edgecombe
One of the last pieces published by Norman Platnick, recently deceased (April 8th, 2020) arachnologist extraordinaire, was addressing a few generalities in systematic biology, a subject to which he made substantial contributions. It appeared as a preface to a book honouring the ichthyologist Donn Rosen (1929—1986) – both Rosen and Norm were at the American Museum of Natural History during a time of revolution, or reform, in systematic biology. The title of that book, Assumptions Inhibiting Progress in Comparative Biology, was derived from a list Rosen created for his students at the University of Miami that addressed 33 such inhibiting assumptions (Crowther & Parenti 2016). Norm compared Rosen’s ‘33 Assumptions’ with Martin Luther’s ‘95 Theses’, the latter nailed to the doors of the Wittenberg Castle church helping start the Reformation. Norm’s preface, a little over 1000 words, ended with a decisive commentary on Rosen’s 8th biogeographic assumption “Some organisms are better indicators of biotic history than others depending on their ecology and means of dispersal”. Norm wrote, and it’s worth quoting in full,
For any given region, the best indicators of biotic history are those groups that show the highest species-level diversity within the area, and whose species show the smallest average distribution ranges. The smaller the areas of endemism that are suggested by a group, the greater the information that group can potentially offer about the biotic history of that region. Unfortunately, this result dramatically highlights the pitiable state of our current knowledge of earth’s biodiversity. The taxa whose distributions we know best (i.e., vertebrate animals and green plants) seldom rank highly on either relevant scale—within any given region, they tend to have relatively few species, and those species tend to have relatively large range sizes. It is among the other 97% of the world’s species, about which vastly less is known, that the groups with the greatest diversity and smallest average range size are to be found. Despite his affection for fishes (the potentially most informative vertebrates), I think Donn would agree that we need to study that other 97%!Platnick 2016
The passage is typical of Norm’s global perspective on taxonomy: mindful of the vastness of the task (‘the pitiable state of our current knowledge of earth’s biodiversity’), but not just for its own sake, but for reasons that inform us all of the world we live in and share.
Of course, this preface wasn’t the last of Norm’s pieces to appear. Quite typically, his last publications were all on spiders: a monograph on the ‘The guardstone spiders of the Phrurotimpus palustris group (Araneae, Phrurolithidae)’ (2019), a contribution to a new spider family, ‘Myrmecicultoridae, a new family of myrmecophilic spiders from the Chihuahuan Desert (Araneae, Entelegynae)’ (2019) and editor of ‘Spiders of the World, a Natural History’ (2020) published by Princeton University Press, a ‘stunningly illustrated natural history of spiders’. Norm contributed 158 new genera and 2,023 new species of spiders to the world fauna, representing nearly half of the 120 recognised spider families. His stewardship of the World Spider Catalogue led to it being an unprecedented resource for systematic knowledge of a major invertebrate group. Norm steered the catalogue through three enormous printed volumes (1989-1997) before making the transition to its current web-based format in 2000. From then until he handed over its management to the Naturhistoriches Museum Bern in 2014 it was updated twice a year, and it is expertly maintained to this day. In addition to his role as a powerhouse spider taxonomist, Norm achieved great things as a museum curator. The AMNH spider collection grew to more than a million specimens (thousands of them types) during his tenure and is the most taxonomically complete spider collection in the world. At the Museum he served as supervisor or committee member to many student or postdoc arachnologists, his trainees going on to become some of the leading lights of spider taxonomy and phylogenetic methods (for example, Pablo Goloboff was one of his last students, https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Pablo_Goloboff).
His fieldwork and descriptive effort were largely focused on the Southern Hemisphere, which he identified as harbouring a greater amount of planetary biodiversity than conventional thinking assumes. We recall a lecture Norm gave at a symposium at the AMNH in 1989 in which he described the standard picture of Earth’s diversity as being greatest near the equator and diminished towards the poles. He suggested that instead the Southern Hemisphere was especially enriched in species and pulled an egg from his suit jacket to illustrate this point. He urged that fragile ecosystems in the megadiverse south of the world be conserved because the consequences of our failure to do so were grave. He made this point unforgettably, holding the egg up for the audiences to see and breaking it on his lectern (Platnick 1991). One can still get a glimpse of Norm in action on YouTube.
Norm was born December 30th, 1951, in Bluefield, West Viriginia, USA. He enrolled at Concord College at the age of 12, got his Bachelors degree at 16, his Masters at 18, his PhD, at Harvard University, at 21, and thence on to the American Museum of Natural History, Department of Entomology, awarded the Peter J. Solomon Family Curator of Spiders in 1998, retiring in 2010. That stark list of degrees, dates and awards masks the more significant achievement of publishing many thousands of pages in over 330 papers, many of them hefty monographic treatments, six books and two edited volumes. Among Norm’s six books was the highly influential, challenging and perhaps the single most significant book written on systematics in this past half century, ‘Systematics and biogeography: Cladistics and vicariance’ (1981) co-authored with Gareth Nelson, also at the American Museum of Natural History at the same time as both Norm and Donn.
As curator, taxonomist, systematist, field biologist, and mentor, Norm’s career should stand as a lesson to any aspiring comparative biologist – not as a representation of what that kind of career was, but as a guide to what can still be achieved.
Crowther, B.I. & Parenti, L.R. 2016. Assumptions Inhibiting Progress in Comparative Biology, CRC Press.
Nelson, G., & N. I. Platnick. 1981. Systematics and biogeography: Cladistics and vicariance. Columbia University Press, New York, xi + 567 pp.
Platnick, N. I. 1992. Patterns of biodiversity: Tropical vs temperate. Journal of Natural History 25: 1083– 1088.
Platnick, N.I. 2016. Forward: Donn Rosen and Inhibiting Assumptions. In: Crowther, B.I. & Parenti, L.R. Assumptions Inhibiting Progress in Comparative Biology, CRC Press, pp. vii—ix.
Platnick, N.I. 2019. The guardstone spiders of the Phrurotimpus palustris group (Araneae, Phrurolithidae). American Museum Novitates 3944: 1–29
Ramírez, M. J., C. J. Grismado, D. Ubick, V. I. Ovtsharenko, P. E. Cushing, N. I. Platnick, W. C. Wheeler, L. Prendini, L. M. Crowley & N. V. Horner. 2019. Myrmecicultoridae, a new family of myrmecophilic spiders from the Chihuahuan Desert (Araneae, Entelegynae). American Museum Novitates 3930: 1– 24.
David M. Williams is a diatom systematist/taxonomist at the Natural History Museum of London, President of The Systematics Association (2018-2021) and Fellow of The Linnean Society of London.
Greg Edgecombe is Merit Researcher at the Natural History Museum of London, department of Earth Sciences, and member of the Council of The Systematics Association (2015-2020).