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.

Sep 022014

Yesterday marked the 100th anniversary of the extinction of one of our most iconic emblems, the Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius). The web is alive with tributes to Martha, the final individual of her species, and cautionary tales of conservation and how we should be working to prevent this happening to any other species. There has also been considerable discussion and debate recently whether the Passenger Pigeon may be a candidate for “de-extinction”; the theoretical process of bringing a species back from the void through cloning and genetic engineering. Seeing how I generally dislike vertebrates dominating the biodiversity news cycle, I figured we could all use a slightly less depressing story about extinction, de-extinction, the role of natural history museums in conservation, and of course, taxonomy.

As we’re beginning to understand, no species is an island unto itself. Every individual is an ecosystem of parasites, predators and symbionts, and thus when one species disappears, its co-dependents are just as likely to vanish, usually without us even realizing it. Allow me to share the story of Columbicola extinctus, a chewing feather mite that quietly faded into the night likely years prior to Martha’s high-profile demise on September 1, 1914, and which we only learned about 20 years after that.

Columbicola columbae, a species closely related to Columbicola extinctus (it seems the differences between them are slight modifications of the head and genitalia; feel free to use your imagination). Photo by Vince Smith, used under CC-BY license.

Working from a preserved Passenger Pigeon specimen collected in 1895 and housed in the Illinois Natural History Survey, Richard Malcomson discovered and described Columbicola extinctus in 1937, noting he had only seen 15 specimens of this new louse. In what may be the saddest etymological discussion I’ve seen, Malcomson says:

“Dr. Ewing of the National Museum, Washington, D.C., suggested the name of extinctus which surely is a suitable one for the Passenger Pigeon is now extinct and probably has carried the parasite into extinction with it.”

And so humanity carried on, parading the Passenger Pigeon out as the flag-bearer for extinction, while its lowly louse faded from memory. That is, until 1999, when, like a phoenix louse rising from the ashes of its host, Columbicola extinctus out-lived its name. While reviewing the genus Columbicola, Dale Clayton and Roger Price discovered that Columbicola extinctus wasn’t found solely on the Passenger Pigeon, but was in fact still alive and well on the Passenger Pigeon’s closest living relative, the Band-tailed Pigeon (Patagioenas fasciata)! What’s more, Columbicola extinctus was found on Band-tailed Pigeon specimens collected all up and down the Pacific coast, from California to Peru! As Clayton & Price note

“Our study reveals no consistent differences between Columbicola specimens from the extinct passenger pigeon and those from the extant band-tailed pigeon, C. fasciata. Thus, there is no longer grounds for considering this species of louse extinct, despite its unfortunate specific epithet.”

It’s worth considering how bird specimens preserved and maintained in a natural history museum allowed taxonomists to not only find a species at a time when it was believed to be extinct, but to also resurrect that same species 60 years later, redefining the term “de-extinction” before it was trendy. Sure, Columbicola extinctus’ species epithet may be a little premature, but it also serves as an important reminder that while extinction is usually forever, nature sometimes finds a way.

And should someone ever succeed in bringing the Passenger Pigeon back from extinction (however unlikely that is or may be to occur), we’ll be able to reunite two species who’s lives and legacies were intimately intertwined, and who were each thought to be lost to time and humanity. A fairytale ending if ever I’ve heard, albeit one that probably won’t make it to Disney.

Clayton D.H. & Price R.D. (1999). Taxonomy of New World Columbicola (Phthiraptera: Philopteridae) from the Columbiformes (Aves), with Descriptions of Five New Species, Annals of the Entomological Society of America, 92 (5) 675-685. DOI:

Malcolmson R.O. (1937). Two New Mallophaga, Annals of the Entomological Society of America, 30 (1) 53-56. DOI:

Nov 222013

In the jungles of southern Mexico there are treasures that glitter and sparkle more than even the most luxurious displays at Tiffany’s, so rare we’ve only ever caught a glimpse of them once. These jewels are made not of stone, crystal or precious metal, but rather segments, cuticle and a punctate mesonotum. Yes, like usual, I’m talking about a fly.

And what a beautiful new Soldier Fly (Stratiomyidae) it is! Meet Paraberismyia chiapas Woodley, which has only just been described, despite having been a prized possession for nearly 20 years.

Paraberismyia chiapas Woodley - Female holotype (Figures 1 & 2 from Woodley, 2013)

Holotype Female of Paraberismyia chiapas Woodley by Norm Woodley CC-BY (Figures 1 & 2 from Woodley, 2013)

A member of the Beridinae, a subfamily of soldier flies known for their colourful & metallic appearance, Paraberismyia chiapas had been recognized as an undescribed species by Norm Woodley in 1995 when he described the genus Paraberismyia, but because he only knew of a single female specimen at the time, he decided to hold off on formally describing the species until he could locate additional specimens. Fast forward nearly 20 years, and a second specimen of Paraberismyia chiapas has yet to be collected, so Norm decided to not wait any longer and published this and 2 other new species in the journal ZooKeys earlier this week.

Having only a single specimen collected in 1985 by Amnon Friedberg (who happens to be the same guy who studied and described several of the “ant-winged” fruit flies that went viral earlier this month — the dipterological community is an incestuous little group…), we don’t know much about this species, other than it lives in the Chiapas region of Mexico (hence it’s species name) at an elevation of 2,000 metres.

Despite there being a large entomological survey project going on in the region for the past 5 years (the LLAMA project, which, while focused on leaf-litter arthropods, you could imagine would have collected a bright green & gold fly that likely breeds and develops in leaf-litter like other members of the Beridinae), Paraberismyia chiapas has yet to make a second appearance, leaving many questions about it’s apparent rarity unanswered: is this species only found on a single mountain top, or is it restricted to a small expanse of high elevation habitats in the southern Sierra Madre de Chiapas mountain range? Is the window when adults are actively flying so short that other expeditions have just missed it? Or more concerning, has Paraberismyia chiapas disappeared completely, stolen from us before we had even given it a name? Obviously we can’t answer any of these questions, or the hundreds more regarding it’s biology and natural history (including why it’s so stunningly coloured), until someone hits pay dirt and rediscovers this little gem.

The other 3 species in the genus Paraberismyia are equally stunning, and I highly recommend taking a look at them (the paper is open access).
Woodley N. (2013). A revision of the Neotropical genus Paraberismyia Woodley (Diptera, Stratiomyidae, Beridinae) with three new species, ZooKeys, 353 25-45. DOI:  (OPEN ACCESS)

Sep 172013

Remember the last time I wrote about the Jewel Beetle Field Guide and said international orders “should begin shipping by June“? Ya, about that…

Co-Author Adam Jewiss-Gaines has been secretly hoarding books. (Not actually)

Co-Author Adam Jewiss-Gaines has been secretly hoarding books, Scrooge McDuck-style. (Not actually)

It turns out that we were much more successful spreading the word about the field guide than the Canadian Food Inspection Agency had expected, and ended up having significantly more orders come from outside of Canada than the CFIA had budgeted for!

Out of money, and with more than 1,000 people patiently awaiting their copies, we were in a tight place this summer. Thankfully, Michael Bohne of the US Forest Service in New Hampshire came to the rescue and arranged to distribute all of the US orders. Mike and his crew received the massive shipment of books last week, so I think it’s safe to say (famous last words) that the field guide should be hitting mailboxes across the US in the next few weeks! I want to say a huge Thank You to Mike and the US Forest Service for helping us get the field guide where it needs to be, and also thanks to everyone who put up with all of the unexpected delays the past several months.

Now, with all this good news, there’s also a bit of bad news. Because of the budget crunch, we’re not going to be able to fulfill orders outside of North America. I feel absolutely terrible about offering the book to anyone, anywhere and then being forced to backtrack, but the CFIA just doesn’t have the money to cover it, and unfortunately neither do I. My sincerest apologies for those beetle-maniacs who were looking forward to getting a copy.

However, here’s a consolation prize for anyone who’s missing out on the hardcopy: you can now download a complete PDF of the book, in either English or French! It may not be quite as nice as a copy on your shelf, but it comes with other perks, like being easily searchable and with high resolution photographs throughout! Since the files are so large, I recommend right clicking on the link and selecting “Save Link As”, which will download the PDF to your computer rather than try and open it in your browser.

Field Guide to the Jewel Beetles (Coleoptera: Buprestidae) of Northeastern North America – ENGLISH (PDF – 281 MB)

Guide des Buprestes (Coleoptera: Buprestidae) du nord-est de l’Amérique du Nord – FRANÇAIS (PDF – 281 MB)

If you live in North America, there are still some hard copies available, which can be ordered by calling 1-800-442-2342 and placing your order with Service Canada. US orders might take a little longer to ship as they will be waiting for a critical mass to ship copies out rather than one at a time. UPDATE: Sorry, hard copies are all sold out at this time.

Finally, Glendon Mellow, the science artist & illustrator who provided several of the illustrations in the field guide, has prints (and other items) of the field guide artwork available for purchase in his online store. If you’re a fan of the book, or jewel beetles in general, why not support Glendon, and get a little jewel beetle art for your home or lab!

May 172013

Field Guide to the Jewel Beetles of NE NA

Good news! Field Guide to the Jewel Beetles of Northeastern North America is finally shipping! If you pre-ordered a copy of the book and you live in Canada, you should be receiving the book any day now (if you haven’t already). If you don’t live in Canada, don’t worry, we haven’t forgotten about you. To make sure that all Canadian orders are filled (including those in forestry research departments and industry), international shipments are being held back a couple of weeks, but should begin shipping by early June.

Continue reading »

Dec 062012

Following the accidental introduction of Emerald Ash Borer (Agrilus planipennis) in the mid 1990’s, and its subsequent detection in the Detroit, MI/Windsor, ON area in 2002, jewel beetles (Buprestidae) have become front page news in many communities in eastern North America. As federal, provincial, state and municipal governments initiate jewel beetle monitoring projects to track the expanding range of Emerald Ash Borer, many other species are captured as by-catch, which has subsequently lead to an increased interest in these bold and beautiful beetles.

Luckily, North American buprestid taxonomists have been working diligently with these charismatic & economically important beetles for decades, and have described and classified nearly all the eastern North American fauna. With a solid taxonomic base to build upon and an increasing demand for accessible identification resources, a partnership was formed between the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the University of Guelph Insect Collection and the Invasive Species Centre to create a user-friendly resource for jewel beetle identification. Today, I’m happy to announce the imminent publication of a Field Guide to the Jewel Beetles of Northeastern North America!

Cover of Field Guide to the Jewel Beetles of Northeastern North America

Cover photo of Buprestis rufipes by Ted MacRae

Map of use for the Field Guide to Jewel Beetles

Green – Guide considered comprehensive; Yellow – Majority of fauna included in guide, may require additional resources; Red – Guide not representative of local fauna, be sure to consult additional resources.

This 411 page field guide (6×9″) covers the 164 jewel beetle species known from northeastern North America, and also includes 2 identification keys to the 23 genera in the region: one a technical key adapted from previously published works, and the other a “field key”, designed for use with a hand lens or digital camera and which uses characters that are more easily observed. In addition, we’ve included a short section on collecting, preparing and storing jewel beetles, as well as an illustrated tutorial on how to dissect male genitalia. Fully labelled morphological maps and a glossary of terms that may be found in the primary literature are provided to help non-specialists use both this field guide, and also any other buprestid literature they may need to consult.

Each species in the guide is fully illustrated with high magnification colour photos of the dorsal & ventral habitus, head and male genitalia (plus additional colour morphs or variations where possible), and a review of taxonomic synonyms, ESC & ESA approved common names, and all known larval host plants is provided in addition to thorough morphological diagnoses, characters useful for differentiating similar species, and notes on species abundance, habitat preference and economic importance. On top of all this, we’ve also included a number of other tools and resources to help with species-level identification in the absence of keys. Take a look at the Emerald Ash Borer page to see what to expect throughout:

So how can you get your copy? The Field Guide to the Jewel Beetles of Northeastern North America is now available by calling 1-800-442-2342 UPDATE: Sorry, hard copies are all sold out. PDFs are available here. The CFIA is making this field guide completely FREE. Yes — totally, 100% FREE, including international shipping. This book won’t be available through traditional or online bookstores, so we need your help in spreading the word about it. If you know researchers/naturalists/citizen scientists who may find this field guide useful, please let them know how they can get copies of their own, because we’d love to see the book in the hands of anyone with an interest in natural history and entomology!

If you have any questions about the field guide, please don’t hesitate to ask, either in the comments below or via email, and my co-authors and I hope you enjoy using it as much as we enjoyed creating it!

Example page from Generic Identification Key for Jewel Beetles

Sample key to genera page. All characters used in the key are illustrated with either high magnification photographs or simple illustrations.

Trachys generic spread from Field Guide to Jewel Beetles

Trachys generic page from Field Guide to Jewel Beetles featuring original artwork by scientific illustrator/artist Glendon Mellow.

Buprestis striata species field guide page

Buprestis striata field guide page showing colour variations.

Jun 202012

Well this is fun1: an entomologist in New Zealand has decided to name a recently discovered moth species after the movie Avatar.

Arctesthes avatar

Arctesthes avatar courtesy of the Forest & Bird press release

The moth in question was recently discovered on a parcel of land in central New Zealand which is currently slated to become an opencast coal mine. In an effort to prevent the area from being destroyed, Forest & Bird (a conservation group in New Zealand) staged a BioBlitz to draw attention to the unique flora & fauna found there. After realizing that they had discovered an undescribed species at the BioBlitz, entomologist Brian Patrick and his son decided to hold a contest, encouraging the public to come up with a potential name for the new species to further draw attention to the cause.

After nearly 100 names were submitted, it was announced June 19, 2012 that the winning name will be Arctesthes avatar. From the press release:

Brian said the Avatar moth was a clear winner. “It was by far the best one. It’s a novel name and the movie is about a mining company that threatens to devastate a human-like species that’s living in harmony with nature. It’s just a really good analogy.”

As we’ve seen with other species names referencing pop-culture icons, the New Zealand media picked up the story and ran with it, publishing the story, the name, and a photo of the moth. Normally this would be great exposure for the researchers (and biodiversity science in general), getting some press for a new species in a location that’s not that far from populated areas.

Unfortunately for the researchers, they may have put the cart before the horse on this one by publicizing their discovery before publishing it themselves.

Unlike other sciences, where you may be able to get away with leaking your results a little ahead of your publication2, when it comes to naming species it’s incredibly important to wait until you’ve actually published. The reason being that if the new species name appears in a publication that has multiple, simultaneously printed copies (like the NZ Herald/Greymouth Star newspapers3) with even a semblance of a description (like “striped moth”, which has been used repeatedly with this story) and/or a photograph (see above), whoever wrote that article becomes the authority behind the name! Nevermind that Brian Patrick is the taxonomic expert, collected the specimen, recognized it as being unique, discovered where it belonged in the tree of life and, in this instance, acquired DNA evidence. All of that will go unrecognized4 and the first journalist who wrote up the story off the press release will go down as the one who formally described the species!

Simply put, instead of being recorded as Arctesthes avatar Patrick & Patrick 2012, the species will be known as Arctesthes avatar RandomJournalist 2012. Oops!

The fact that new species descriptions needn’t be published in a peer-reviewed journal may come as a surprise, but I think it’s an effort to keep taxonomy an accessible science for anyone, anywhere. It’s clear that some funny things can happen when there are few restrictions on where a species can be described, and as the Code of Zoological Nomenclature moves into the digital age with the next edition, many taxonomists are hoping that registration services like ZooBank will play a big role in new species descriptions and validation in the future. Until the new “Code” is ratified however, unfortunate events like what happened here with Arctesthes avatar are possible.

So remember kids, when you go to describe a new species, publish first, publicize second!

UPDATE 27/06/2012: As Kai pointed out in the comments below, the authors have escaped this embarrassing scenario because none of the media stories will likely include enough information to form a proper type designation.


1- My definition of fun and that of the entomologist involved are probably different here…

2- Although I would assume this is frowned upon as well.

3- Thanks to David Winter of the Atavism for help tracking these sources down.

4- They’ll still publish their work, but it won’t actually be a new species description anymore.

Apr 202012
Willi Hennig - The Father of Modern Phylogenetic Systematics

Willi Hennig (Image by Gerd Hennig, CC-license, Wikipedia)

The science of taxonomy is rooted in history, with every taxonomist standing on the shoulders of giants that came before. Some of these giants are well known outside of taxonomic circles: Carl Linnaeus, the godfather of taxonomy who categorized life and introduced binomial nomenclature; Charles Darwin & Alfred Russel Wallace, co-discovers of evolution through natural selection and both prolific descriptive taxonomists in their own right. A lesser known giant, Willi Hennig, was not only a brilliant taxonomist, but also revolutionized the way in which we study & reconstruct species relationships. Today (April 20, 2012) marks what would have been his 99th birthday, and in his honour, I invite you to sit back and allow me to tell you a story of flies, war and why you & I are fish.

Willi Hennig was born April 20, 1913, the eldest son of working class parents, in Dürrhennersdorf, Germany. Hennig excelled throughout his schooling, developing a passion for insects by the 5th grade, and began working at the Dresden State Museum of Natural History while still a teenager. After a few years studying the taxonomy of reptiles, Hennig found his true passion, dipterology. Starting somewhere between 1932 and 1934, Hennig began revising the stilt-legged flies (family Micropezidae), completing his revision in 1936. Hennig erected 10 new genera and described 93 new species over several papers spanning 300+ pages. Concurrently, Hennig found time to publish papers on stilt-legged fly biogeography, more reptile taxonomy, and he also completed his PhD (on the copulation apparatus and system of the Tanypezidae; another lineage of acalyptrate flies), all before he was 24.

Poecilotylus species eating off a tree trunk in Bolivia Micropezidae

This stilt-legged fly belongs in the genus Poecilotylus, one of the genera Hennig created in his early Micropezidae work.

Hennig was beginning to rethink how species were related, but before he could further explore his ideas, German politics and a world at war intervened.

Enlisted into the German army in 1938, Hennig fought for Nazi Germany (though he was never a member of the National Socialist party) until 1942 when he was severely injured while fighting in Russia. After recovering from his injuries, Hennig was posted to Italy as a military entomologist and put to work on malaria prevention. In May of 1945, as the war was nearing an end, Hennig’s unit was captured by British soldiers, and he became a prisoner of war. His British captors recognized Hennig’s potential, and rather than placing him under confinement in a prison camp, allowed him to continue his work on malaria for the benefit of the Queen.

For 5 months while confined to the “service” of the British army, Hennig refined his hypotheses on the evolutionary history of species. With the help of his wife Irma, who corresponded with colleagues and journals on his behalf (because he continued to publish throughout the war), and who included hand-written excerpts of the scientific literature in her letters to him, Hennig completed his first draft of one of the most important biological manuscripts of the 20th century, all by hand while a POW, prior to his release in October, 1945. It would be another 5 years until his book would be published in Germany because of a paper shortage, and a further 16 years until the English-speaking world was introduced to Willi Hennig’s revolutionary Phylogenetic Systematics.

Prior to Hennig’s book, species (and higher taxa) were clustered by overall similarity without regard for their evolutionary history, a method known as phenetics. What set Hennig’s phylogenetic systematics apart was the idea that species evolved from one another, and thus species should be classified as complete units descended from a recent common ancestor (a concept known as monophyly).

Phenetics vs Cladistics

Phenetics vs Monophyly (Modified image from lattice CC-BY)

Think of a tree; with phenetics, leaves from different branches could be grouped together because they looked the most similar to one another. Phylogenetic systematics on the other hand, posited that only leaves arising from a shared branch should be classified together, regardless of how those leaves may look. How do you know the origin of the branch when all you have in front of you are the leaves? Hennig’s answer was to find defining characters or traits that were unique to the tip branches but which were different from the branches closer to the trunk of the tree.

It’s Hennig’s concept of monophyly that makes us all fish. You see, what we call fish, tasty aquatic vertebrates with fins and gills, are actually a number of different evolutionary lineages, each arising successively like twigs off a tree branch. One of those twigs near the end of the branch became the terrestrial vertebrates, which in turn has smaller twigs each representing amphibians, reptiles, birds (which are actually reptiles for the same reason we’re fish) and mammals. So, if we consider separate twigs of aquatic, gilled vertebrates as “fish”, then we must also consider our twig of terrestrial vertebrates “fish” since the most recent, common ancestor of all the “fish” also gave rise to us!

Fish Phylogeny

Fish Phylogeny (Image modified from Understanding Evolution)

In retrospect it seems a simple idea that species should follow a branching pattern from a common ancestor like Hennig proposed, but the upheaval of decades of work on species relationships was indeed revolutionary, and was viciously opposed by many biologists. In fact it wasn’t until the late 1980s that phylogenetic systematics came into vogue, in most part thanks to a new, young cohort of taxonomists who adopted the moniker of “raving cladists”.

Hennig meanwhile, continuing his work with flies, applied his phylogenetic systematics across a large diversity of dipteran families, examined flies sealed in ancient amber for evidence of ancestral characters, and published dozens of papers (across thousands of pages) that redefined the higher relationships among flies and described new species. It was at work in his museum that Hennig preferred, only twice venturing from Germany to examine fly collections in Australia, the USA, and Canada, where he spent several months working in what is now the Diptera Unit of the Canadian National Collection of Insects in Ottawa.

Oh, to be a fly on the wall in this room for the day! Back row from left: Frank McAlpine, Herb Teskey, Guy Shewell. Front row from left: Monty Wood, Dick Vockeroth, Bobbie Peterson, Willi Hennig.

Oh, to be a fly on the wall in this room for a day! So much dipterological knowledge all concentrated in one room, it must have been amazing. Back row from left: Frank McAlpine, Herb Teskey, Guy Shewell. Front row from left: Monty Wood, Dick Vockeroth, Bobbie Peterson, Willi Hennig. (Image from Cumming et al, 2011)

Willi Hennig wouldn’t survive to see his work become fully appreciated by the scientific community. After a normal day working in his museum looking at larval flies, Willi Hennig suffered a heart attack and died at home on November 5, 1976. Although he died much too young, his legacy lives on; his work with stilt-legged flies is second to none, many of his hypotheses regarding the higher relationships of flies are being supported with new DNA data, and biologists around the world use phylogenetic systematics on a daily basis.

Happy Birthday Willi, and thanks for all the fish.

Willi Hennig (Image by Gerd Hennig, CC, Wikipedia)



All biographical information was taken from the following sources:

Byers, George W. 1977. In Memoriam: Willi Hennig (1913-1976). Journal of the Kansas Entomological Society, 50 (2): 272-274. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25082934?origin=JSTOR-pdf

Kluge, Arnold G., Bernd Hennig. No Date. Willi Hennig. Willi Hennig Society – http://cladistics.org/about/hennig

Schmitt, M. 2003. Willi Hennig and the Rise of Cladistics. Proceedings of the 18th International Congress of Zoology: 369-379.

Dipterist Group Photo:

Cumming, Jeffrey M., Bradley J. Sinclair, Scott E. Brooks, James E. O’Hara, Jeffrey H. Skevington. 2011. The history of dipterology at the Canadian National Collection of Insects, with special reference to the Manual of Nearctic Diptera. Canadian Entomologist 143: 539-577.


Jan 132012

Robert Redford may have a beetle, but musical sensation Beyoncé is fly!

That’s right, Ms. Sasha Fierce has been bestowed with the taxonomic honour of patronymy by Australian dipterists Bryan Lessard and David Yeates.

Beyonce fly Scaptia beyonceae

Bryan was bedazzled by the golden rumped females of the newly described Scaptia beyonceae, a horse fly in the family Tabanidae, and decided to forever immortalize Beyoncé’s Bootylicious bottom. The species may have been a child of destiny, as the type specimen was collected in northern Australia shortly after Beyoncé’s birth, and has only been collected twice since. Nobody knows how this fly species would appear if it were a boy, as all known specimens are female.

I tried reaching Taylor Swift to learn when her own fly would be coming out, but was interrupted by Kanye West who apparently thinks this is one of the best flies of all time. No word yet when junior synonym Scaptia blueivyii will be described, but I’ll keep you updated!

(All kidding aside, Bryan is a cool guy who I met at ESA this past fall. He described another 4 species in the same paper, including one named for Dr. Leigh Nelson (Scaptia nelsonae) which isn’t receiving near the press for some reason…)

ResearchBlogging.orgBryan D Lessard, & David K Yeates (2011). New species of the Australian horse fly subgenus Scaptia (Plinthina) Walker 1850 (Diptera: Tabanidae), including species descriptions and a revised key Australian Journal of Entomology, 50 (3), 241-252 : DOI: 10.1111/j.1440-6055.2011.00809.x