Jul 032015
 

This week, Nature published a short Correspondence from Giovanni Strona, a biologist “mainly interested in theoretical ecology”, with a positively shocking revelation: taxonomists are selling the naming rights to new species.


I knew having a fainting couch installed next to my lab bench would pay off one day.

Continue reading »

Jun 242015
 

Oh give me a home where the buffalo roam,
Where the deer and the antelope play,
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word,
And the skies are not cloudy all day.

When it comes to evocative imagery of North American landscapes, perhaps no other song brings nature to life like Home on the Range. Sung round a campfire, your imagination can’t help but picture the Great American Plains teeming with life and big game under wide open skies as far as the eye can see. Yet, even as Dr. Brewster Higley was writing Home on the Range in 1876, the ecosystem that inspired him was already being drastically altered, and within a decade only a few hundred buffalo would roam where millions had previously.

And while buffalo, or more properly, bison, have largely been extirpated from their home on the range, they left behind an ecological footprint, if not hoofprints, that may influence the ways in which the deer and the antelope, but also the sheep, play.

When we think of animal engineers, we normally think of the beaver, reshaping waterways with dams and lodges carefully crafted with no regard for canoeists or property owners. But bison are known to wallow in their own environmental ingenuity as well, quite literally. Buffalo wallows are depressions in the plains that after decades of communal use by bison herds develop a layer of water-impermeable soil that helps trap water and mud near the surface, which in turn draws more and more wildlife to them during the hot, dry, summer months. These communal baths are even visible from space, and have stuck around for centuries even where bison no longer visit.


By rolling around and washing off all manner of biological material, from skin and hair to dust and plant matter, along with all manner of bodily fluids (bison aren’t adverse to peeing in the pool, so to speak), these wallows, when used, become highly enriched with organic matter. And where there are pools of organically-rich, wet, mud, there are undoubtedly a range of flies just waiting to make themselves at home.

Enter new research by Robert Pfannenstiel and Mark Ruder of the Arthropod-Borne Animal Diseases Research Unit of the USDA in Kansas. Pfannenstiel and Ruder wondered whether biting midge larvae (Ceratopogonidae) in the genus Culicoides were more likely to be found in wallows that haven’t been used for generations but which still collected water, or in wallows that rebounding bison have adopted and infused with fresh fertilizer.

When it comes to aquatic fly larvae associated with “Arthropod-Borne Animal Diseases”, Culicoides may not seem an obvious choice, with things like mosquitoes and black flies more often drawing our attention. But just as the megafauna of the Great Plains has changed since 1876, so too has its microfauna.

In the late 1940’s, a new disease began to emerge in the sheep and cattle of the Southwest, first in Texas, and then California. Termed “soremuzzle” by ranchers and shepherds, infected livestock, particularly sheep, would develop swelling and ulcers in and around their nose and mouth, become fevered, pull up lame, and in some extreme cases, the animal’s hooves would fall right off. Then, in 1952, immunologists finally put the pieces together and realized “soremuzzle” was actually Bluetongue Virus (BTV), a vector-borne disease only known from Africa and the Mediterranean at the time. Since then, Bluetongue Virus has spread from the American Southwest up throughout the plains and has begun creeping into the Midwest, as well as spreading to all the other sheep-inhabited continents, recently becoming a major concern for shepherds in the UK.

The wide spread of BTV was made possible in part by ranchers shipping infected sheep (which commonly don’t show signs of infection, and can remain infectious for weeks following initial exposure) around the globe, but also by the close relationships among the virus’ vectors, biting midges in the genus Culicoides. In the Mediterranean, the only vector had been Culicoides imicola, but eventually enough infected livestock spread into the neighbouring ranges of Culicoides obsoletus and C. pulicaris in Europe, who then helped spread the disease all across the continent.

Meanwhile, in North America, another pair of Culicoides species with wide ranges of their own found themselves home to BTV, Culicoides sonorensis, and Culicoides insignis, bringing us back to buffalo wallows and muddy waters.

Culicoides sonorensis - Photo copyright Adam Jewiss-Gaines, used with permission.

Culicoides sonorensis – Photo copyright Adam Jewiss-Gaines, used with permission.

Pfannenstiel and Ruder scooped mud from buffalo wallows in and around the Konza Prairie Biological Station in Kansas (where, incidentally, the state song just so happens to be Home on the Range), some of which were currently being used by bison, and some of which had not been visited by bison for years, and reared the Culicoides larvae from each sample in the lab. They found that active bison wallows were home to Culicoides sonorensis (as well as several other closely related Culicoides species), with several dozen specimens reared from mud collected throughout the summer, while relict wallows were not.

All of this leads to an extremely complex conservation conundrum. By bringing back bison, and allowing them to resume wallowing in their wallows, it seems we’re increasing habitat for a fly species that carries a disease not present the last time bison roamed the range. Bison themselves are susceptible to BTV, but like cattle, don’t normally show the extreme symptoms or mortality that sheep do. However, the bison’s range is also home to nearly half of America’s sheep, with more than 2 million heads grazing the same areas as bison once roamed. More bison may equal more Culicoides, which in turn could equal more cases of BTV among livestock, a prospect that likely won’t sit well with ranchers and shepherds in the area.

What’s more, sheep aren’t even the most susceptible plains animals to BTV. While most infected sheep may show clinical signs of BTV infection, usually less than 30% of infected animals actually succumb to the disease. Meanwhile, the deer and the antelope (pronghorn) playing alongside the wallowing bison and grazing livestock experience an 80-90% mortality rate when infected with BTV, and will likely serve to spread the disease further, faster.

Of course, being a vector-borne disease, BTV can only spread as far as its vector is found, and unfortunately, we’ve been caught a little unprepared to answer just how far that may be. Culicoides are difficult to identify, and so we don’t know where these flies may or may not be found currently, and more importantly, where they may spread to in the future as climate change broadens acceptable habitat. Luckily, researchers like Adam Jewiss-Gaines, a PhD student at Brock University, are working to not only figure out where Culicoides‘ are found, but are also developing keys and resources that will allow others to track the great migration of these tiny flies.

Conservation biology is complicated, and fraught with trade-offs, especially when we try to conserve species in landscapes on which we place a high economic value and which we have changed immutably. So while we’ve brought bison from the brink of extinction back to Home on the Range-era levels, we now find ourselves presented with a new range of conservation challenges, and there may yet be dark clouds in our future skies.

—-

Pfannenstiel, R. S., and M. G. Ruder. 2015. Colonization of bison (Bison bison) wallows in a tallgrass prairie by Culicoides spp (Diptera: Ceratopogonidae). J. Vector Ecol. 40: 187–90.

May 282015
 

Check out this video that Matthew Cobb of Why Evolution is True just found and posted. While it’s primarily showing a pair of swifts (Apus apus) being reunited after a 9 month hiatus in Africa, check out who crashes the party (most easily seen around the 1:10 mark).

That little scuttling thing playing peekaboo from the neck feathers of the male is actually an adult fly in the family Hippoboscidae, and most likely a male Crataerina pallida, the swift louse fly. These flies are ectoparasites of birds, where they bite and feed off the blood of both nestlings and adults.

Hippoboscids, like bat flies in the family Nycteribiidae (sometimes considered a subfamily of the Hippoboscidae) that Piotr Naskrecki has been showing off this week, give birth to live, late-stage maggots that the female has reared and nourished one at a time in her abdomen. The maggots are deposited into the swift’s nest, where they pupate and then scuttle onto their nestling host. According to Hutson (1981), fly populations peak in mid June when the swift nestlings are just beginning to hatch, and steadily fall off from there until most flies are dead by mid to late August, and he stated the flies do not make the migration with the birds.

But, since these flies don’t lay eggs, they must be spending the winters in the nest boxes as pupae, awaiting the return of their hosts year after year. Hutson found that males are more prevalent early in the spring, with females to follow. This leads us to an interesting question of how this louse fly got onto this bird! The fly was already aboard the bird when it entered the box (if you watch closely you can see a white blob that moves around neck is first visible at 0:06, immediately after the male bird approaches the sitting female). This means that one of two things happened: either the male bird has in fact carried its little parasite friend down to Africa and back (something that neither Hutson nor Walker & Rotherham (2010) believe to be the case) (and assuming this was the first nestbox that the bird stopped in, which I take to be the presumption of the ornithologists who posted the video and stated it shows a male reuniting with its mate from last year in last year’s nestbox), or alternatively, the male bird did stop for a time in another nestbox where it picked up its little hitchhiker, and then proceeded on to its longterm mate. This of course raises questions about how committed these birds really are to their mates, and whether they may be getting a little action on the side (or at least exploring their other options) before settling down for the season. Since I know pretty well nothing about bird biology, if someone knows more about swift mating, bonding, and extra-pair copulation, let me know in the comments if I’m way off.

Either way, catching a glimpse of a louse fly playing peekaboo on the neck of its host may raise more questions than the initial emotional response of “WHAT IS THAT THING?!?”, and that’s pretty darn cool.

Continue reading »

May 072015
 

When taxonomists discuss gender, they’re usually debating whether the etymological root of a species name is the same gender as the root of its genus, and whether that species name should end with –i, –a, or perhaps –us. While debating ancient Latin grammar may be a noble, if occasionally dull, pursuit, there’s a more important discussion on gender in taxonomy that we need to be having; why women continue to be underrepresented in our discipline.

I’ve been somewhat aware of the gender disparity in taxonomy for a while—I’ve casually noticed how few women are currently employed in natural history collections or as professors of taxonomy & systematics at universities, and that there are relatively few women attending taxonomic meetings, particularly outside of students and post-doc positions—but the issue burst into my consciousness like a slap to the face recently as the journal ZooKeys celebrated their 500th issue.

As a part of the celebration, ZooKeys created a series of Top 10 posters that they shared on social media, recognizing the editors, reviewers, and authors who have helped the journal become one of the most important venues for zoological taxonomy over the last 7 years. Check them out:

zk_editors_smallzk_reviewers_smallauthors-articles_smallauthors-taxa_small

Of the 35 people being recognized for their contributions to publishing & the taxonomic process, in categories that are highly regarded and influential in hiring & promotion decisions, only 1 is a woman. I doubt ZooKeys could have created a starker depiction of gender disparity in taxonomy had they tried.

What’s going on here? How can only 1 woman be included in these lists? Hoping that it was some random fluke, I started looking around for more information on gender diversity in the taxonomic community, and well, it didn’t get better.

First, I looked at the editorial board & section editors for ZooKeys, and found only 1 woman sat on the editorial board, out of 15 members (6.7%), while only 37 of the 265 section editors were women (14%). When I compared this to Zootaxa, the other major publisher of zoological taxonomy, I found the exact same ratio among section editors, 14% (32/225). Systematic Biology? A slightly better 15 for 80 (19%), while Systematic Entomology is 3 for 18 (17%) and Cladistics is only 2 for 20 (10%). Even the small biodiversity journal for which I’m the technical editor only has 2 female editors out of 15 (13%). Meanwhile, the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature, the governing body that sets the rules for naming animals and adjudicates disputes over names, currently has 23 male commissioners, and only 4 women (15%).

Compare this to ecology, where Timothée Poisot reports 24% of editors for the more than a dozen journals he’s looked at are women, while Cho et al. (2014) found editorial boards in other biological fields to be roughly 22% women in 2013 (up from ~8% in 1990). Clearly 22-24% is a far cry from parity, but it’s still 10% higher than it is in taxonomy.

But is this indicative of the true diversity of taxonomists? It’s hard to say. In 2010, the Canadian Expert Panel on Biodiversity Science surveyed taxonomists in Canada, and reported that 139 of their 432 survey respondents identified as women (30%). Ironically, the panel itself only included 3 women (out of 14; 21%), and only 2 women reviewers (out of 12; 17%), failing to accurately reflect the community it was attempting to assess. Meanwhile, the UK’s House of Lords Science and Technology committee on Taxonomy & Systematics (2008) reported only 143 of 861 UK taxonomists were women (17%), but while there was much discussion over the potential decline in total numbers of taxonomists, there was none regarding gender inequality.

Looking more broadly, 42% of science & engineering PhDs were awarded to women in 2013, and 28% of applicants to the NSF Division of Environmental Biology (the major funding source for ecology, evolutionary biology and taxonomy/systematics in the USA) in 2014 were women, so it’s not unreasonable to assume the professional taxonomic community is at least 25% women, and hopefully much higher. Again, 25% is a long ways from equality, but it still suggests there is a definite misrepresentation of diversity on the editorial committees of taxonomic journals.

So why does it matter if editorial boards and reviewer pools aren’t representative of the community, whether it be in terms of gender or ethnicity (another important discussion the taxonomic community should be having)? Well, for one, keeping taxonomic publishing an Old Boys Club is more likely to result in situations like that which recently occurred at PLoS ONE, with biased, sexist, and misogynistic attitudes influencing not only the publication of research, but by extension, the career advancement (or lack thereof) for taxonomists based solely on their gender. Now, I’m not saying that the editors and reviewers for ZooKeys & Zootaxa are explicitly engaging in biased behaviour, but recent research has shown the implicit biases of academia towards women, particularly in publishing, and there’s no reason to assume taxonomy is immune to these factors.

But there’s also the fact that female early career taxonomists may look at the editorial boards of these journals, or see posters of those being recognized and praised for their contributions, and not see anyone that looks like them in a position of power. Having role models with whom one can identify with is an important influencer, and after 250 years of old white dudes at the helm, it’s unfortunately not difficult to see why gender diversity in taxonomy is where it is.

So where do we go from here? How can we encourage more women to pursue a career in taxonomy and bring their passion for the natural world along with them? Well, for starters, we should be inviting more women to become editors for our journals, but we also need to start talking about gender equality in taxonomy, and our failings therein, more openly. The statistics on women in taxonomy from the Canadian Expert Panel on Biodiversity Science weren’t mentioned at all in the main body of the report, but were instead relegated to the appendices. Worse, the 2010 UK Taxonomy & Systematics Review didn’t include data on gender diversity in taxonomy, instead focusing on funding and age demographics; perhaps illustratively they titled the demographics section “Current Manpower and Trends”.

Ignorance of gender disparity in taxonomy is no longer acceptable; there is no excuse for convening a panel discussion on “The Future of Diptera Taxonomy & Systematics” at an international meeting and only inviting male panelists. As a community, we need to change the way that we go about our work so anyone with an interest in biodiversity feels welcome and able to contribute to our collective knowledge of Earth’s species. Just as we are compelled to debate the etymology of a dead language, we must be equally compelled to create a vibrant taxonomic future based on equality and diversity.

UPDATE (12:02p 05/07/15): Ross Mounce pointed me to a paper that was just published this week that examines the role of women in botanical taxonomy, and they present data that is equally bad to my numbers above. Of the nearly 625,000 plant species described over the last 260 years, a paltry 2.8% were described by women. Additionally, only 12% of authors in botanical taxonomic papers were women. Read the paper in its entirety in the journal Taxon.

——-
Cho A.H., Carrie E. Schuman, Jennifer M. Adler, Oscar Gonzalez, Sarah J. Graves, Jana R. Huebner, D. Blaine Marchant, Sami W. Rifai, Irina Skinner & Emilio M. Bruna & (2014). Women are underrepresented on the editorial boards of journals in environmental biology and natural resource management, PeerJ, 2 e542. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.7717/peerj.542

——-

For the biodiversity data scientists reading this, a challenge: what proportion of authors in taxonomic papers are women, are they more likely to be first author, last author, or somewhere in the middle, and what proportion of taxa have been described by women? I think these statistics should be relatively easy to figure out, especially with services like BioStor & BioNames, and will help us better understand gender diversity in taxonomy, both historically and as we move towards the future. And perhaps consider publishing your results in the Biodiversity Data Journal, which has editorial gender issues of its own (editorial board: 1/14 (7%); section editors: 28/161 (17%)).

Apr 222015
 
March flies (Bibionidae) pollinating both flowers and each other.

March flies (Bibionidae; Bibio albipennis) pollinating both flowers and one another.

When it comes to pollination ecology research, bees are their own knees. Along with butterflies, birds, and bats, bees reign supreme as the queens of pollinator studies, with huge amounts of money and time spent each year trying to understand everything about their biology, from how they choose which flowers to visit, to the structure of their societies, and of course, why some species seem to be in decline. While some flies (like flower flies ­— family Syrphidae) are beginning to break into the hive of pollination research, bees so dominate the pollination ecology landscape that suggesting alternative groups, like other flies, may also be important pollinators can result in quizzical looks, derisive scoffs, and even disbelief at results that run counter to popular thinking.

The latter is exactly what happened when Dr. Katy Orford submitted a paper from her PhD that showed flies play a major role in grasslands pollination; the editor rejected it due to a lack of literature supporting her Dipterous conclusions. So, Orford set out to do what no one had done to this point: show beyond a shadow of a doubt that flies are important, and overlooked, pollinators.

Crane fly hanging out among the flowers.

Crane fly (Tipulidae) hanging out among the flowers.

Orford began by gathering and assembling previously published datasets that looked at the connections between pollinators and plants across the UK, specifically datasets that looked at plant-pollinator-visitation networks (what insects visit which plants based on observations) and pollen-transport networks (how many grains of each kind of pollen was found on each insect’s body). Orford immediately found that few studies had actually looked at these metrics for entire insect communities rather than just targeted groups like bees, but she ended up with a dataset spanning both natural and agricultural ecosystems that included over 9,000 insect specimens, 520 pollinator species, and 261 species of plants.

With her dataset in hand, Orford had four questions she wanted answered: how specialized are flies with regards to the plants they pollinate; how prevalent are dipteran pollinators in agriculture and how much pollen are they carrying; and most importantly, how do flies stack up against bees, butterflies, and beetles when it comes to transporting pollen?

Flies, it turns out, aren’t overly picky about what flowers they’ll visit and feed from. While flower flies visited a broader spectrum of the floral smorgasbord available in the study plots, they were found to be no better at transporting specific pollen species than the other fly families. This isn’t to say that there aren’t any specialized relationships between plants and flies (cacao and biting midges in the genus Forcipomyia being the most famous example of flowers and flies being in league with one another, much to our enjoyment), only that in the particular environments Orford examined she found no evidence for specialization among the residents.

When Orford looked at the composition of fly visitors on farms, non-syrphids were not only more speciose than their flower fly cousins, averaging 7 species to 3, respectively, but they also outnumbered them 4 to 1 in the sheer number of individuals. In fact, Orford found that only 3 farms out of the 33 she had data for reported more flower flies than other flies. Not only were non-syrphids more diverse and more abundant, but they also carried more than twice the number of pollen grains on their bodies as flower flies did in agricultural fields. All of this suggests that the role of syrphids in pollination ecology, a topic that has received at least some study at this time, may only be the tip of the iceberg when considering the importance of flies in agricultural pollination.

Urophora affinis (Tephritidae)

Urophora affinis (Tephritidae)

This is all well and good when deciding which flies are better pollen bearers among themselves, but how do they stack up against the rest of the competition? Do bees really pull their weight in the great pollen wars, or have flies been shouldering the load without us realizing it?

Unsurprisingly, bees are really good at carrying pollen. Not counting the pollen trapped in their specialized storage structures (like the corbicula of Apis mellifera, or the scopa of Megachilidae leaf-cutter bees), Hymenoptera still beat out all the other insect groups when the number of pollen grains on each individual was counted, while flies, butterflies and beetles were all found to be roughly equal in their carrying capacity. This result shouldn’t really come as a surprise, as bees have specialized branched hairs all over their bodies that have evolved to efficiently trap pollen, which is then combed out of the hairs and into their pollen storage structures. So while flies are usually pretty hairy, they’re essentially catching pollen with a comb, rather than the hair net that bees are employing.

But, while each individual bee may carry more pollen than each individual fly, Diptera are much more abundant, at least in agricultural settings. In fact, Orford found that two-thirds of all pollinating insects recorded in her agricultural datasets were flies. That means that when we talk about agricultural pollination ecology, which is predominantly focused on bees currently, we’re a long ways from seeing the complete picture.

Perhaps Wired's editors were on to something here. If it looks like a bee, and carries pollen like a bee, then...

Perhaps Wired’s editors were on to something here. If it looks like a bee, and carries pollen like a bee…

There was one other thing that Dr. Orford discovered, however. When she broke down her pollen-load data beyond just Hymenoptera and Diptera, and started looking at the pollen loads of bees and flies on a finer taxonomic scale, she found that, statistically speaking, flower flies carry just as much pollen on their bodies as European honey bees.

Does this mean flower flies are as effective pollinators as honey bees? It’s too early to say; honey bees may be better at transferring pollen from flower to flower and causing flowers to develop seeds; or they might not be. More research into the pollination efficiency of flies is clearly needed, but the potential implications of this pollen equality are staggering. Orford’s data shows that on farms, flower flies make up about 16% of all flower-visiting insects, while bees, butterflies and beetles together combine to make up only 33% of visitors. It’s very possible that we’ve been attributing a little too much success to those “busy” little bees.

Orford’s work presents another fly in the ointment, so to speak: if bee populations, including honey bees, are indeed declining as has been suggested by several recent papers and hyped by the media and special-interest groups like beekeeping societies, what’s happening with flies? Are they experiencing similar declines as social bees, or are they shielded from the effects of human-trafficked diseases and parasites, along with pesticide accumulation in hives by their solitary and undomesticated lifestyle? Are monocultural agriculture practices and denuded, degraded, and destroyed natural habitats reducing fly diversity in the same way that other pollinators appear to be experiencing? We just don’t know at this point.

And while bees become an increasingly popular talking point and agenda item for politicians, Diptera remain undiscussed. US President Barack Obama in particular has become a champion for bees, with a pollinator garden and bee hotels supposedly being built on the grounds of the White House. Why not monitor and speak up for all of the pollinators, two-winged or four, in President Obama’s backyard as Dr. Orford did?

Geron sp. (Bombyliidae)

Geron sp. (Bombyliidae)

Well, as she notes in the conclusions of her work, flies aren’t as easy to study as bees are. For one, flies don’t return to a predictable location such as a hive or nest like bees do, which makes observing and experimenting with them considerably more difficult. The other major issue, of course, is taxonomy. There are more than 6 times as many species of fly currently known than there are bees, and those flies are notoriously difficult to identify, even to the proper family in some instances, never mind trying to determine genus or species. While the flower flies have received a great deal of taxonomic attention in the past 50 years, and are generally more easily identified than most groups of flies, the same is not true for the top non-syrphid pollen carriers identified by Dr. Orford: Bombyliidae, Muscidae, and Calliphoridae, all of which pose significant identification and/or taxonomic challenges at the moment.

The solution? From Dr. Orford: “training in dipteran taxonomy should be more available to ecologists. Alternatively, specialist taxonomists should be included in research projects to prevent pollination biologists being deterred from recording Diptera due to identification difficulties”.

I couldn’t agree more.

Dipterists around the world are working hard to make the flies they’ve devoted their careers to more accessible, both through the publication of identification resources, and through the organization of workshops and other educational events. However, as has been shown by Dr. Orford’s work, we should expect a growing demand for keys and other identification tools, along with the people who create them, to usher in a new era of pollination ecology; an era defined by a greater understanding of pollinators of every ilk through collaboration and communication between Diptera taxonomists and pollination ecologists.

As for Dr. Orford, since successfully defending her PhD last fall, she’s taken a position working with government policy in the UK, providing an important voice for flies alongside those advocating for more “traditional” pollinators. As for her paper on grasslands pollination, whose initial rejection inspired this long-overdue look into the flowery lives of flies, now that she’s shown the pollination hivemind the importance of Diptera, she hopes her work will fly through the peer-review process.

Toxomerus marginatus (Syrphidae)

Toxomerus marginatus (Syrphidae)

Orford K.A. & J. Memmott (2015). The forgotten flies: the importance of non-syrphid Diptera as pollinators, Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 282 (1805) 20142934-20142934. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2014.2934

Mar 182015
 

On the scale of 1 to What On Earth Has Gone Wrong, this ranks somewhere out near Pluto.

Check out this news article published by Science Magazine. Yes, *that* Science Magazine.

Seriously. SERIOUSLY.

Beetles almost never have sucking mouthparts either. And are almost never in the order Hemiptera. Almost.

To illustrate an article about beetles, Science Magazine used a stock image of a shield bug (Hemiptera: Scutelleridae). The publication that can literally make or break careers in academia by judging our science worthy to grace its pages apparently can’t be bothered to check the differences between beetles and bugs.

Obviously they aren’t the first to publish an embarrassing taxonomy fail (every entomologist has their personal favourite example), but it blows my mind each and every time one turns up.

I accept that not everyone knows the difference between a shield bug and a beetle. It’s not a piece of information that is routinely taught outside of specialized university courses. But did the author of the news article fact check the scientific paper that was the focus of the story, or check his sources to make sure they weren’t blowing smoke? I assume he did. I hope he did.

So why wasn’t the random stock photograph, or the photographer who captioned the photo, held to the same standard and fact checked to ensure it was actually, you know, a beetle? What about a photograph pulled from a stock agency lends itself to unconditional trust? Do people assume that because it was available in this “gated” database that someone along the way must have known what they were talking about? iStockPhoto, the agency the photo was licensed from, markets themselves as a cheap source of stunning imagery, and we all know what happens when we value low prices over high quality:

Almost never what we want.

UPDATE: Science Magazine finally corrected the photo, and the story is now illustrated with a fossil weevil, which makes much more sense. But, here’s the correction they added:

*Correction, 18 March, 10:27 a.m.: The image that originally accompanied this article (a mislabeled stock photo of a bug, not a beetle) has been replaced.

Or alternatively, “It’s not our fault we originally included a photo of a bug instead of a beetle, that’s how it was labelled on the internet!”, which is positively laughable. I wouldn’t accept that excuse from my undergraduate students, never mind from a scientific publisher that lauds itself as one of the most prestigious journals in all of science.

The bigger problem for Science however, is that the image wasn’t even mislabelled by the stock agency or photographer! Nancy Miorelli and Timothy Ng found the original image on iStockPhoto, which is clearly labelled “Jewel bug – Stock Image”, and in the description as “A jewel bug on a leaf”. One of the keywords applied to the image is in fact “Beetle”, which is obviously not correct, but clearly Science has no one to blame but themselves here, and their weak attempt at shifting that blame is repulsive.

Mar 142015
 

It’s March 14, 2015, which, in North America at least, makes it Pi Day (3/14/15), a day where people celebrate the most well-known mathematical constant with delicious baked goods and puns.

But in Middle-earth, the magical and engrossing world created by J.R.R. Tolkien as the setting for his tales of rings, hobbits, and adventure, Pi Day could coincide with the elven celebration of the Diptera! In Quenya, the ceremonial language of the high elves in Middle-earth, the word “fly” (in the entomological sense) translates directly to pí.

pí - Diptera in Quenya

Translation and Tengwar courtesy of Lee Jaszlics (biologist, photographer, and Quenya aficionado)

Coincidentally, flies actually make their debut in the world of Middle-earth on March 15, 3019 (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter II – The Land of Shadow) as Frodo and Sam wander through a riverbed deep within Mordor. Tolkien writes:

To their surprise they came upon dark pools fed by threads of water trickling down from some source higher up in the valley. Upon its outer marges under the westward mountains Mordor was a dying land, but it was not yet dead. And here things still grew, harsh, twisted, bitter, struggling for life. In the glens of the Morgai on the other side of the valley low scrubby trees lurked and clung, coarse grey grass-tussocks fought with the stones, and withered mosses crawled on them; and everywhere great writhing, tangled brambles sprawled. Some had long stabbing thorns, some hooked barbs that rent like knives. The sullen shrivelled leaves of a past year hung on them, grating and rattling in the sad airs, but their maggot-ridden buds were only just opening. Flies, dun or grey, or black, marked like orcs with a red eye-shaped blotch, buzzed and stung; and above the briar-thickets clouds of hungry midges danced and reeled.

The dancing midge clouds are easily explained, but I spent a lot of time trying to find a fly species that would fit Tolkien’s description. It turns out that “dun or grey, or black, marked like orcs with a red eye-shaped blotch” is a surprisingly rare combination in the Diptera. In fact, I couldn’t find any species of flies that could be described as dark with red splotches! Certainly there are species that are dark with red heads, including micropezids in the genus Scipopus, or signal flies in the genus Bromophila (as recently discussed by Piotr Naskrecki), and many flies are known for literally having red eyes (think of your friendly kitchen Drosophila), but unlike beetles, red blotches or spots seem to be rare in flies.

Scipopus sp. from Bolivia

Scipopus sp. from Bolivia

The only solution I could come up with that fit the general description and habitat of these Morgai flies was perhaps a species of Chrysopilus snipe fly (Rhagionidae), commonly called golden-backed snipe flies here in regular Earth. These flies have a blanket of magnificent golden pile on the top of their thorax, which can be brushed off giving the appearance of the Eye of Sauron (although they are certainly not blood suckers or pests). Perhaps under the evil influence of Sauron, a new species of  Chrysopilus arose in Morgai, developed a taste for orc blood, and took to the air to reign terror from the skies.

Chrysopilus thoracicus from Ontario on the left, with its Tolkienian cousin Chrysopilus "morgai" on the right

Chrysopilus thoracicus from Ontario on the left, with its Tolkienian cousin Chrysopilus “morgai” on the right

So on this Pí day, I hope you’ll not only herald the popular mathematical constants, but also the dipteran variables that make our natural history interesting, and our literary history magical.

Of course, the best possible way to celebrate would be to follow James Gilbert’s lead and make a Pí Pie for Pi Day. Mmmm, pie.

Footnote: In the recent video game Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, Morgai flies were depicted as eusocial, living in paper hives, and able to drive off nearby orcs with a well-placed arrow. While I may be taking liberties with fly evolution to make a red, blood-sucking snipe fly, calling what are clearly social wasps “flies” gives WB Games a taxonomy fail index of 58. Now there’s some math for you.

Jan 062015
 

Natural History Collections are the Libraries of biology. They collect, protect, and maintain the specimens that allow us to understand how the natural world works, and then they make them available for people to use, study and enjoy, usually for free. Every specimen is irreplaceable, a priceless first edition that allows us to explore, interpret and compare the unique ways in which evolution, ecology, and the environment have shaped not only the species we share this planet with, but also ourselves.

Imagine a library without a librarian. What do you suppose would happen? For one, there wouldn’t be any new books added for you to borrow, enjoy, or learn from, so you better like the classics and not be interested in keeping up with the New York Times Bestseller List. That’s assuming of course you can even find the books you’re interested in, because without someone to make sure they’re kept in their proper spot and order maintained, shelves will devolve into chaos, and it won’t be long until insects, microbes, and the environment begin to decompose the entire collection into piles of poorly organized dust.

The same is true for biological collections, only the librarians are called curators. Without a curator, a natural history collection is nothing more than a poorly organized pile of dust in waiting. No museum in their right mind would allow the very core of their existence decompose like this, would they?

The Royal British Columbia Museum is thinking about it. The CEO of the museum, Professor Jack Lohman, is of the mind that the Entomology Collection no longer needs a paid curator, and that the money earmarked for employing one could be better spent elsewhere in the museum. He couldn’t be more wrong.

The last entomology curator, Dr. Robert Cannings (who happens to be a dipterist who did his PhD at the very lab bench that I’m doing mine at now) retired in 2012 after a 32 year career as Curator of Entomology. He has stayed on as Curator Emeritus, but the museum has yet to hire his replacement, and has now publicly stated that they likely won’t.

Let’s return to our library metaphor again for a moment to illustrate how poor, and unprofessional, the decision to let the RBCM entomology collection go without a curator is. According to their website and this information sheet put together by the collection staff (PDF), the entomology collection at the RBCM was established in 1886, and now holds roughly 600,000 specimens. Compare that to the Canadian Library of Parliament, the most prestigious library in Canada that is attached to our Parliament Buildings and which serves as the official repository and resource for our government. It was founded a mere 10 years before the RBCM entomology collection, in 1876, and also houses 600,000 items today. The difference is that Library of Parliament employs 300 people to keep it running and functional, while the Royal British Columbia Museum Entomology Collection currently employs 1 collection manager, and has been deemed undeserving of a curator to maintain its esteemed history.

That is unacceptable.

But it’s not too late. Professor Lohman has agreed to hear arguments for why the entomology curatorship position should be filled, and will delay making a final decision until January 22, 2015.

Natural History Collections matter. Entomology matters. Curators matter. Please join me in letting Professor Lohman know that this is not an issue that should even be negotiated, never mind cut outright. Write him a letter (his address & email are below). Tweet at him using @RoyalBCMuseum and share why museums and the collections they maintain matter to you; tweets including the museum’s Twitter handle seem to go directly onto the front page of the museum website for all to see!

Stand up for entomology research in Canada. Don’t let 129 years of natural heritage turn to dust.

Write to:

Prof. Jack Lohman

Chief Executive Officer

Royal British Columbia Museum

675 Belleville St,

Victoria, BC V8W 9W2

JLohman@royalbcmuseum.bc.ca

And send a copy to:

Peter Ord: Vice President, Archives, Collections, and Knowledge

POrd@royalbcmuseum.bc.ca

Jan 042015
 

In the latest issue of Scientific American, David Shiffman has a short article titled “Monikers Matter“, on the potential importance of common names for the conservation of species. He highlights the case of Charopa lafargei Vermeulen & Marzuki, a species of recently discovered snail only known from a single hill in Malaysia which is slated for demolition by the cement company Lafarge. He also cites a 2012 study by Paul Karaffa et al. that examined how student’s value animals based solely on (fictional) common names, and found that patriotic or “positive” names resulted in the students being more willing to conserve those species. It’s an interesting idea, and might be something for taxonomists to consider.

But, every species name put forward in Karaffa et al.’s study was either a mammal or a bird. Do we really think the same principles will apply for all species equally, specifically the uncharismatic invertebrates like insects, snails and their overwhelmingly diverse brethren?

There are 3 species listed as Endangered or Critically Endangered by the IUCN which have a common name that includes the term “American” (a term that features heavily in the positive section of Karaffa et al.’s survey), 2 of which are found in the USA (the 3rd is a Central American frog). Conveniently for this comparison, one is a vertebrate, the American Eel (Anguilla rostrata; listed as Endangered), and the other an invertebrate, the American Burying Beetle (Nicrophorus americanus; listed as Critically Endangered).

To estimate how much society values the conservation of these 2 species, I simply entered their scientific species names into Google Scholar and restricted the results to papers published in 2014, with the assumption that the number of people actively studying a species should act as a pretty good approximation for the value we place on that species as a society. In 2014, there were at least 456 papers published discussing the American Eel. In comparison, there were only 26 papers discussing the American Burying Beetle.

Obviously there is more at work here than just common names, but the fact that we value (by this simple metric at least) the American Eel so much more than the American Burying Beetle (a factor of 17.5x more) suggests that monikers don’t really matter, unless of course you share a spine with the species.

Vertebrate and charismatic bias is a significant influence in conservation biology, and nomenclature is unlikely to be an easy fix for it.


Karaffa P.T. & E. C. M. Parsons (2012). What’s in a Name? Do Species’ Names Impact Student Support for Conservation?, Human Dimensions of Wildlife, 17 (4) 308-310. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10871209.2012.676708

Vermeulen J.J. & Marzuki M.E. (2014). ‘Charopa’ lafargei (Gastropoda, Pulmonata, Charopidae), a new, presumed narrowly endemic species from Peninsular Malaysia, Basteria, 78 (1-3) 31-34. DOI:

Dec 312014
 

It’s that time of year when people look back on the year that was and reflect on what they’ve done, or not done, and begin planning on how to fill up the blank slate that comes with the new year. For myself, 2014 was arguably one of my most successful to date: I was awarded more than $20,000 in scholarships & awards, not counting my NSERC scholarship; I published 1 paper, have another major paper scheduled to be published in January, and have 3 more in progress that I hope to have submitted by February; I passed my qualifying exams, TA’d our intro entomology course, gave almost a dozen workshops and outreach events, and took my first MOOC; I visited some incredible places for my research, from Austria to Iceland to Oregon, and was fortunate to meet and spend quality time with dozens of friends and colleagues from around the world, including some old friends, some digital friends I met for the first time in the “real world”, and many, many, new friends. I collected new data for my PhD which already has me saying “huh…” (a good thing, really), am starting to get a handle on the diversity of the Micropezinae (my focal research group), and have been invited to collaborate with researchers across the continent on a variety of interesting projects that could have potentially significant ramifications.

Online, I published 26 blog posts, fewer than perhaps I had hoped, but not bad overall. More importantly, something has recently shifted: I’m actually beginning to enjoy writing, and what’s more, I’ve become confident in my abilities, thanks in large part to the supportive online science community. It’s taken me nearly 5 years, but perhaps this whole blogging experiment is paying off how I had hoped it would! I was also interviewed for articles in The Atlantic, CBC News, and my university’s digital magazine, I contributed to an article on the shared graduate experience, and published a newsletter article encouraging biologists to try their hand at science communication. Oh, and I had a tweet go viral and draw all kinds of rage from the internet.

Breaking Bio is still going strong thanks to Tom, Steven, Heidi, and Gwen, and not only did we get to talk to dozens of interesting and engaging people and publish 24 episodes in 2014, but we also secured funding from the European Society for Evolutionary Biology to cover our operating costs, making this the first of my online ventures to actually approach a break-even point financially. Watch for plenty of new content, and potentially some new and exciting things in 2015!

Like I said, 2014 was a pretty damn good year for me, and yet I can’t help but feel like I could have, and should have, done more. I still deal with existential dread about my dissertation and whether I’ll ever get caught up on my research, and I waver daily about what I may or may not want to do when I do finish my degree. I have no idea what 2015 will hold for me (although it’s already starting to fill up, and I haven’t even flipped the calendar over), but my goal is to procrastinate less, stop allowing fear of rejection hinder my progress, publish more (both academically and publicly), and reacquaint myself with that black box in my backpack that can apparently take photographs and record video.

So Happy New Year, internet! I hope your 2014 was filled with as much success and fellowship as I was lucky to have, and that 2015 brings you even more of the same!

Holiday Ornament