Earlier today I reflected on my start as a Blogger™ over on Twitter, which is basically where I blog now (hashtag blogging is dead or something). Stephen Heard (who has his own blog) suggested I post it here too, and I figured for old time sake (and so I don’t forget my login information) that that sounded like a great idea.
Today marks the 7th anniversary of the greatest career decision I've made: I hit "Publish" for the first time on my blog.
Another year has come to a close; papers were written, grants awarded, and theses… progressed? Regardless, 2015 continued the trend of challenging but ultimately rewarding solar orbits for me, marking some pretty major milestones, and forecasting a few others. As we head into the great unknown of 2016, I hope we can look forward to the same incredible quantity & quality of science writing, videos, and podcasts that were produced in 2015. I found a lot of inspiration in the creativity & talent of science communicators (and other types of communicators) this past year, and learned a lot of interesting information, all while being endlessly entertained.
If you find yourself needing some inspiration of your own this coming year, or just want to be entertained at the alter of science, here are my favourite reads, watches, and listens from 2015.
Meanwhile, in southern California, Aaron Pomerantz was putting together this fantastic video explaining how researchers at the Natural History Museum of LA County discovered 30 new species of phorid flies in the backyards of Los Angeles.
If reading about myiasis doesn’t shake you up, I guarantee Love + Radio’s The Living Room (aired by RadioLab, which is where I originally heard it) surely will. This radio tale is as unsettling as it is magnificent, and I guarantee you’ll have a mix of emotions and opinions upon its conclusion.
In August, I spent most of my reading time sitting on a dock at the cottage where WiFi is definitely lacking. Luckily I brought 2 excellent books with me, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed and would recommend everyone pick up.
Infested: How the Bed Bug Infiltrated our Bedrooms and Took Over the World by Brooke Borel
Animal Weapons: The Evolution of Battle by Douglas Emlen
Infested by Brooke Borel is a wonderful examination of the rise, fall, and rise again of bed bugs in the western world, featuring a whole suite of interesting human characters throughout. Be warned: this one might be a little tough to read while laying in bed.
What can I say about Animal Weapons by Douglas Emlen? Well, it quickly rocketed into my all-time Top 5 list of favourite books about natural history and evolutionary biology. Beautifully written, Emlen shadows the development of human tools of war with the ways in which animals wage battle, tying everything back to natural selection and how it is constantly influencing the world we live and fight in, and adding in personal touches from his years of field work for good measure. I’ll be recommending this book for anyone interested in learning about popular science writing for years to come.
Podcasts are a lot of things. Sometimes they’re interviews or people talking at each other. Sometimes they’re narrative stories told by hosts and subjects together. And sometimes, they’re something special and entirely different. The Memory Palace is the latter; spoken word essays about historical events by Nate DiMeo that are incredible twists and turns through emotions, humour, and education. Craning, describing the launch of Apollo 11, is an audio masterpiece.
Field work doesn’t always go exactly as one might hope, and pride tends to come before the fall, or in Aerin Jacob’s case, before the mud hole. This is The Story Collider at its best.
That being said, sometimes work in the lab doesn’t always go according to plan either. Science Friday shares the a case of a herpetologist who has the worst day of his career, and documents it from start to end.
And in the anthropocene, we can use all the help we can get when it comes to conservation. The American Museum of Natural History tackles the issue of extinction with excellence in their Shelf Life episode, Six Extinctions in Six Minutes.
So there you have it, all the things I read, watched, and listened to that I couldn’t get out of my head in 2015. I hope 2016 is a year of unparalleled success and happiness for you and yours, and thanks for continuing to stop by and read my own work throughout the year. It’s been fun.
As you may have noticed, it’s been fairly quiet ’round these parts the last few months. I’m not sure there’s one particular reason why I’ve let my blogging fall off, but rather a compilation of factors, like doing a PhD (and a number of side-projects…), the ease of sharing brief thoughts on Twitter, and the “P” word: Procrastination.
That’s not to say that I’ve disappeared from the online ecosystem, it’s just that there’s been a shift in the content I’m creating and where I share it. Breaking Bio (the podcast I co-host with a great group of other biologists) is going strong and we’re coming up on our 100th episode, and like I mentioned, I’m finding Twitter an easier way of sharing ideas, opinions, jokes & research news than writing several hundred words here. Of course I’m also playing around with Tumblr and Instagram, and have a bunch of ideas for additional projects if I can make/find the time for them. I was even invited to give a plenary address last month regarding the stuff I do online, which was awesome & humbling, but which also served to illustrate how much I’ve let my blog slide of late.
So while I can’t promise that my posting schedule will pick up anytime soon here, I still consider this blog as my home base online, and the place I go to when I really want to delve into a topic. I’ve always found a warm & receptive audience from you, my readers, and have always appreciated having my ideas challenged or bounced around by everyone who takes the time to read what I write. The support I’ve received online has been incredibly important to me, and I want to thank each and every person who has read, commented or shared something I’ve written here.
But now I have an opportunity to learn a little more about you, and it’s even going to count as SCIENCE! Dr. Paige Brown Jarreau is a Post-Doctoral Researcher at Louisiana State University who is interested in the science blogging community. She has previously studied and surveyed the motives of the people who write science blogs, but now she’s interested in finding out who is reading science blogs, which means she wants to hear from you!
So I’ve teamed up with Paige to create a survey of you, the readers of Biodiversity in Focus (and associated products). By participating, you’ll be helping me improve my blog and contributing to SCIENCE on blog readership. You will also get FREE science art from Paige’s Photography for participating, as well as a chance to win a t-shirt and other perks! It should only take 10-15 minutes to complete. You can find the survey here: http://bit.ly/mysciblogreaders. Paige also successfully raised some money with a crowd-funding campaign in order to provide perks for those that take the time to fill out her survey, so if you help her (and me) by filling out the survey at http://bit.ly/mysciblogreaders by October 30, you’ll be entered to win a $50 Amazon.com gift card (100 available to be won across all surveyed blogs)! It’s a Win-Win-Win: Paige gets data to help her research, I get to learn a little more about who you are & why you read this blog (and presumably others), and you have a chance at winning some money (plus the guaranteed feeling of personal satisfaction for making those first two Wins possible)!
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.
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.
In case they remove the video (which I actually hope they do), here’s a screen cap demonstrating the problem.
So. Much. Fail.
I think it’s safe to assume that Bed Bugs (Eukaryota: Animalia: Arthropoda: Hemiptera: Cimicidae) are not being pumped into the groundwater of Bozeman to clean up dry cleaning chemical contamination, but rather Bacteria (which belong to an entirely different Domain of life). While certainly an extreme example, this is why it’s important to use the correct names for organisms, and what happens when we off-handedly use common names or terminology that we think is colloquial: vitally important details can be lost in translation.
In case you’re wondering, mistaking Bed Bugs for Bacteria represents a Taxonomy Fail Index of 403, a new world record! Yowza.
Microsoft magnate and celebrated philanthropist Bill Gates is bringing attention to mosquitoes and mosquito-born diseases in what he’s calling Mosquito Week as an homage to Discovery Channel’s yearly shark extravaganza. Modelling his outreach event after the “scary” world of sharks is pretty brilliant in my opinion, especially when you bring in the numbers of how many people are killed by sharks every year compared to how many die as a result of infected mosquito bites, which he does in this crystal clear infographic.
Now all we need is for SyFy to produce this spinoff of Sharknado and mosquitoes should be on everybody’s mind!
Me too Bill, me too. But before you start filming, please learn the difference between crane flies and mosquitoes. I am available to consult on this and any other Diptera/Entomology issues should you need it.
Bill Gates is certainly one of the most influential people on the planet, and I hope that his Mosquito Week succeeds in bringing much attention to the issue.
Aedes larva from a vernal pool outside of Guelph. Luckily for me, I have little to fear from this species aside from a few itchy bites. Unfortunately, many others across the globe are not so lucky.
I love me a good nomenclatural etymology dissection, and this one by Heather Proctor at her new blog The Inquisitive Anystid about the story behind Odocoileus (the genus that includes white-tailed and mule deer) is a great one.
A while ago I started a weekly link round up series, but unlike Ed, Chris and Malcolm, I quickly became inundated with too much good stuff and it was taking me way longer to put together each week than I felt comfortable doing, and eventually allowed it to drop.
But, there is some truly awesome work being done across the internet bringing attention to entomology and science in general, so I figure I’ll try and do a monthly recap of some of the stuff I come across and that I think should be read/watched/listened to by more people! Here’s this month’s crop of awesomeness (in chronological order).Continue reading »
There’s a pretty remarkable fly photograph making the rounds of social media today, and while it originally had me going “Oooooh!”, the more I think about it, the more I feel like we’re staring at clouds.