Alpha taxonomy is the discipline concerned with finding, describing and naming taxa (such as species) of living or fossil organisms. This field is supported by institutions holding collections of these organisms, with relevant data, carefully curated: such institutes include natural history museums, herbaria and botanical gardens.
A formal description of a species follow certain rules. From a collection of organisms, one or more specimen are selected as basis for the description, these ideally being "typical" specimen of the new species. In living species where specimen are easily obtainable, these should ideally represent both adult and young individuals. Often they are not however, and with fossil specimen, the basis for the description can be fragmentary and often the only known specimen available. These are designated type specimen, and are to be kept as reference for the species in a special type collection. Mammals and birds are often kept as skin and skeletons (sometimes only the skull). Insects are commonly kept as dried specimens, while other animals are often preserved whole in alcohol or formaldehyde. Plants are preserved flattened and dry in herbaria.
For the new species to be valid, the formal description must be published in a scientific journal. Several journals exist devoted to the publishing of new species. The description of a species will contain a description of typical features of the organisms, and how it differs from other similar organisms. The new species is given a binomial name according to scientific naming conventions, usually accompanied by a formal biological classification giving Kingdom, Phylum or Division, Class, Order, Family, Genus, and Species. Special rules apply in botany, where a formal description must have a summary in Latin giving a brief description of the shape of leaves and flowers.
In botany, an alpha taxonomist who names taxa is called an auctor, from the scholastic term for author. In zoology, the term auctor has been replaced with the terms "author" or "authority". A scientist who attempts to describe new taxa has to be intimately familiar with all the previously published scientific literature on that group of organisms. This is necessary in order to avoid errors such as describing an already-named species (thus creating an unnecessary junior synonym) or using a species name that is already taken. The literature on any one group of organisms often spans centuries, and is often written in several different languages, making alpha taxonomy very much the realm of specialists.