Taxonomy is the discovering, naming, describing, and classification of all living organisms and fossils. Taxonomists collect plants, animals, fungi or micro-organisms, study them, and group them according to patterns of variation.

They study these organisms in nature, laboratories, and in museums and herbaria where there are research collections. Several million species of animals and over 325,000 species of plants are presently known. It is estimated that between a few million and 30 million species await discovery. Many of them are in the sea, and marine taxonomy is a particularly scarce skill in South Africa.

Having the correct name for a plant or animal is essential for accessing information about the species, for using it in any way, for conserving it or for controlling it if it’s a problem species. Taxonomy is often referred to as a fundamental science because it is so important to all other fields of biology.

Topics studied:

  • the scientific basis of classifications, to better understand evolution
  • the ever-changing aspects of nature, such as the processes that lead to the development of new species or the ways that species interact
  • the ways that human beings impact on the environment and on other species
  • the screening of plants for compounds that can be used for drugs (bio-economics)
  • the control of pests and diseases that affect plant and animal crops.
With a shortage of taxonomists around the world, the fields of biodiversity, evolution and conservation hang in the balance. There is a false impression that taxonomy is old-fashioned, like stamp-collecting, but the field has changed drastically recently and DNA analysis and computer programming are being used to assist in identifying species and for making information accessible on the internet. Being a taxonomist is both exciting - according to a learned professor, “There’s no greater thrill than being the first human being to knowingly lay eyes on a new life form in the solar system” and rewarding because of the importance of the work.

Taxonomists spend time ‘in the field’, collecting specimens, or in a museum or herbarium studying preserved specimens. They then assess the material in the laboratory or an office. Microscopes, digital cameras and imaging systems, computers and databases and book resources are used for research. An important part of the research is writing up the results for publication in books or scientific journals.

How to Enter

Schooling & School Subjects

National Senior Certificate meeting degree requirements for a degree course

Each institution has its own entry requirements

What to Study

Degree: 4 year degree in Zoology, Entomology, Botany, Biology, Microbiology, or a related field of study. They must also have completed course work within Mathematics and another science.

Although there are career opportunities for taxonomists with bachelor’s degrees, most professionals have either a master’s or doctoral (PhD) degree. Undergraduate degrees can be obtained in Biology, Botany, Zoology, Entomology, Microbiology. Graduate students focus specifically on Taxonomy. They study Diversity, Population Biology, Genetics, Evolution, Ecology, Biogeography, Computers and Statistics.

Although there are career opportunities for taxonomists with bachelor’s degrees, most professionals have either a master’s or doctoral (PhD) degree. Undergraduate degrees can be obtained in Biology, Botany, or Zoology. Graduate students focus specifically on Taxonomy. They study Population Biology, Genetics, Evolution, Ecology, Biogeography, Chemistry, Computers and Statistics.

Possible Career Paths

Graduates may choose to work at a university or a research institute as a research assistant or technician, or pursue a master’s and/or doctorate degree to become a researcher and perhaps eventually become a research manager or leader or even the head of such a facility. Many taxonomists have careers in universities. They teach theory and research skills to students, and continue to conduct their own research in their particular area of interest.


  • universities with large plant collections often hire taxonomists as curators to maintain the collections and conduct research on them
  • research institutions that have biodiversity collections, such as museums, and herbaria
  • government agencies - public health, agriculture, wildlife management and forestry
  • private industries - agricultural processors, pharmaceutical companies, oil companies and commercial suppliers of plants and animals.
  • botanical gardens
  • environmental impact assessment companies that do biodiversity surveys

Further Information

Southern African Society for Systematic Biology (SASSB)

The South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI)
Private Bag X101
Pretoria, 0001
2 Cussonia Ave
Tel: (012) 843-5000 Fax: (012) 804-3211

Programmes by Study Institutions

Related Occupations