Jun 182016

Since the beginning of the year, I’ve been tracking the newly described animal species that have made the news with their introduction to science, with the intent of understanding what factors make a new species newsworthy. I’m still collecting data and figuring out how to make sense of it all, but in the process I’ve come to realize that a fair number of taxonomists and journals are either unaware of the rules of nomenclature, or perhaps just don’t care.

There are a surprisingly large number of rules that govern how and where new species of animals can be legitimately described, rules that are created and occasionally adapted by the governing body of animal taxonomy, the ICZN. These rules are in place to ensure the language of biodiversityspecies, genus, and family names—are consistent and stable worldwide, ensuring that when a scientist in China refers to the genus Micropeza, scientists in Canada, Peru, and South Africa can all understand explicitly what the organism they are referring to is. Without stable names agreed on internationally, we would have a gigantic mess on our hands, and all of biology would grind to a halt.

One of the important tenets of stable names is establishing what name came first, and then using it forever (barring some scenarios in which the oldest name can be suppressed, which we won’t bother going into). This is called the Principle of Priority, and may be the most important (and sometimes, trickiest) rule to follow. Obviously, when trying to address what name was created first, it’s vital to know the exact date that name met all the criteria set forth by the ICZN and was officially coined. Again, there are a lot of rules that stipulate when a name is considered “official”, but one in particular is, for some reason, apparently being ignored more often than the others, and which can cause names to become complicated, quickly.

This rule, introduced in 2012, allows for new species names to be published in digital format (either as an early view version ahead of traditional printing, or entirely digital, like PLoS One for example). Up until this rule was introduced, only names published in journals or other publications that were printed out on paper (in multiple copies) and distributed to a couple of libraries were considered legitimate. But, recognizing that the world of scientific publication is changing (rapidly), the ICZN finally adopted a new rule allowing names to become official in digital publications, but only if the authors take one extra step: register their publications in a new database called ZooBank. This registration process does two things: 1) it allows for papers that have new names introduced in them to be more easily tracked, and 2) the registration process includes a stipulation that the journal intends to archive a non-editable PDF of the paper, so if the internet and all digital media are destroyed, we still (hypothetically) have records of these new names (although I reckon we’ll have bigger issues to deal with than worrying about correct taxonomy in that situation…). Regardless of the intent, these are the new rules, and for any names published in a digital format, the paper must be registered in ZooBank (and state in the paper somewhere that it has been), a process that takes less than 10 minutes to do. Simple enough, right? Apparently not.

In the past 6 months, of the roughly 120 taxonomic papers that have made the news, I’ve found at least 5 that have failed to meet this ZooBank qualification, meaning that any names introduced by the authors aren’t actually real (yet). Five papers out of 120 may not seem like that big a deal, but when you expand that ratio to the roughly 15,000 new animals species described every year, we’re potentially looking at 600 new species that unknowingly remain without an official name!

So what’s the big deal if a few more species remain nameless, there are millions left to be discovered anyways, right? And if the name is being published as an early view in a journal that still releases paper copies, the names will eventually become official once the paper versions are printed and distributed (perhaps weeks or months later). Basically, for scientists that have spent months or years examining specimens and collecting data only to fail to meet this one tiny requirement is akin to a person running a marathon, and then stumbling and falling on the very last step and being disqualified from the race, yet celebrating their “accomplishment” anyways. It may be awkward, or embarrassing, and it should be avoided by all means necessary, but won’t it all get fixed eventually? Well…

Besides the professional embarrassment, there’s a big problem just waiting to happen when names aren’t correctly, and formally, published: someone else scooping the naming rights for your species. Until the name is fully published and all the qualifications met, either by the name being printed out on paper when its assigned issue is published, or alternatively by someone else publishing their own paper that does meet all of the rules, there is no requirement that the name proposed by the original authors actually be used. In fact, nothing is stopping anyone from finding one of these inadequately named species, and turning around a quick paper coining a name of their own for the taxon, establishing priority and ensuring they are recognized for eternity, and not the people who did all the hard work. This type of taxonomic sniping isn’t unheard of, although to my knowledge there have not been any examples of ZooBank robbing, yet.

Is it shady? Definitely. Is it likely to happen? Eventually. Is it avoidable? Absolutely.

So as I’ve stumbled across these named-but-actually-unnamed species by accident, I’ve been sending out cautionary messages on Twitter reminding taxonomists or anyone else in the process of describing a new species about the ZooBank rule, or straight-up condemning repeat-offender journals and advising people not to publish new names in them (looking at you Scientific Reports). Which is what I did again Friday afternoon regarding another new species, published in a prestigious journal that should know better, but which failed the ZooBank test. Unlike previous times however, I linked to the paper, and called out the journal directly, mostly because I hold it in high regard, and also because subtweeting an entire field of science clearly wasn’t working.

To my surprise, within 30 minutes my cell phone was ringing, and the lead author of the paper in question was on the line asking not only what they did wrong, but more surprisingly, that I please delete my tweets calling attention to the issue. The author was aware that the ICZN had recently changed the rules to allow digital publication but didn’t know the specifics, and the journal they submitted to had apparently not published a new species description since the changes came into effect, and so weren’t prepared to comply on the author’s behalf either.

I ended up spending a good deal of time explaining the ZooBank rule to them, and suggesting how they can work with their journal editor to fix it, but I remained uneasy about deleting and retracting my tweets. However, after talking more with the author, and recognizing that they were genuinely afraid of a specific person known for their unscrupulous taxonomic practices learning of their mistake and taking advantage of it, I agreed to take down my tweets, but with the understanding that I would be disclosing the series of events and actions here, albeit with their anonymity intact. Frankly, the taxonomic community has enough challenges facing them, and I’d rather not contribute to those challenges further simply to prove a point at the expense of someone else’s hard work.

So be warned, readers working to document and describe Earth’s biodiversity! Spend some time learning the rules of nomenclature, and ensure that the journals that you submit your science to are equally knowledgeable of what it takes to name a species. And if you’re unsure of a journal’s dedication or experience publishing taxonomic research, take the responsibility for your hard work into your own hands and register your taxa and your papers yourself, and avoid the potential pitfalls of naming species in the digital era. You’ll be glad you did when you see your species spoken of with the name you intended!

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 »

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.

Dec 112014

Nature published an article this week with some nice infographics that illustrate the astonishing number of species considered threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which is pretty depressing, at least if you look at the vertebrates. In what was a nice surprise, they actually included data on insects in addition to the fuzzy wuzzy taxa, noting that there are currently 993 species of insects considered threatened by the IUCN.

993 species is quite a lot, right? I mean, mammals have 1,199 threatened species, and birds 1,373, so you’d be forgiven for thinking that insect conservation is actually not too far behind the curve. But what happens when you dig a little deeper into that data?

If I were to ask you what you thought the order of insects is with the highest number of IUCN listed species, I’d be willing to bet you’d guess moths and butterflies (Lepidoptera), or possibly beetles (Coleoptera). I know that’s what I assumed. I’ve prepared a few interactive graphs of my own to help break down what those 993 species are, and how they fit into the larger picture of insect diversity (hover over wedges to see percentages, and over taxon labels to find some of the smaller wedges). And surprise, it’s probably not what you were expecting.

That’s right, dragonflies, damselflies (the Odonata), grasshoppers, katydids, and crickets (the Orthoptera) together make up more than 50% of the 993 threatened insect species. Surprised?

Next, let’s examine the total number of species that have been assessed by the IUCN, which includes the 993 species listed as threatened, plus extinct species, species considered not at risk, and species where there is insufficient data to make any conclusions.

Somewhat unbelievably, 53% of all insects assessed by the IUCN belong to the Odonata. 53%. Talk about a massive skew in the data. For context, compare the IUCN’s assessment numbers to the total known diversity for each insect order.

Look at the relative sizes of the blue Odonata wedge and the red Orthoptera wedge across all three graphs: when we look across everything we know about insect diversity, 50% of IUCN threatened insects species belong to just two orders of insects, which together make up only 2.5% of the total insect diversity. Incredibly, nearly half of all known Odonata have been assessed by the IUCN. Compare that to some of the major orders (major both in the sense of diversity and ecological/economic impact), like flies (Diptera) where 8 (the Where’s Waldo slice of pie near the top of the Assessed Graph) out of the 150,000 160,000 species we have names for have been formally assessed.

8 species of flies.

Out of 150,000 160,000.


What’s more, some other insect orders which you would think would be correlated to the high assessment numbers of mammals and birds, specifically their ectoparasitic lice (Pthithiraptera, here included in the Psocodea) and fleas (Siphonaptera), have been completely neglected, with only 1 louse and 0 flea species assessed. Granted not all ectoparasites have high host specificity (case in point, the Passenger Pigeon louse), but when you realize that conservationists working to save charismatic species like condors and black-footed ferrets have likely caused the extinction of their respective lice (none of which are included in the IUCN Red List by the way), and add in the fact that we’ve only described a tiny fraction of the total diversity of insects, we need to assume that the conservation status of insects is being dramatically, drastically, underestimated.

It certainly seems like conservation biologists have been preferentially looking at the bigger insects (Odonata, Orthoptera and Lepidoptera make up 75% of assessed species), and pretty much ignoring the rest. It’s hard to argue with that strategy considering how difficult it is to find, identify, and track smaller insects like beetles, flies and bugs, but if we want to give a proper status report on the state of global biodiversity, we have a lot of work left to do, and any interpretations involving insect diversity need to be taken with a goliath beetle-sized grain of salt.

And no, the goliath beetle, one of the largest insects alive today, hasn’t been assessed by the IUCN either. Go figure.

Nov 252014

The trailer for Jurassic World, the latest instalment in the Jurassic Park franchise, was released today, and well… see for yourself.

While scientists have apparently figured out how to genetically modify dinosaurs (which I thought was the entire premise of the original when they spliced frog DNA into ancient Dino DNA, but whatever, GM-OH NOES!), they still haven’t hired an entomologist to tell them which amber inclusions are mosquitoes (family Culicidae), and which are crane flies (family Tipulidae).



No big deal though, crane flies and mosquitoes are close enough, right? Well, actually they’re about as closely related to one another as velociraptors are to sea turtles (and only a little more closely related than humans are to Tyrannosaurus rex).

I think we can all agree that Jurassic World would have a much different mood if it climaxed with this

than it does with this

So for all you Hollywood producers out there looking for an entomology consultant to save you from embarrassing oversights, have your people call my people; we can fix this. But in the meantime, save me a seat when Jurassic World hits theatres.


P.S. About that Mosasaur. While we know marine mammals like killer whales can be bitten by mosquitoes (a captive killer whale in San Antonio contracted and later died of West Nile Virus back in 2007), the odds of a mosquito biting a wild mosasaur in the ocean, and then flying, fully leaden with blood, back to shore, only to be immediately entombed in sap running down a tree trunk and preserved for a few million years as an amber inclusion, are a bit of a stretch.

There’s a chance I may be overthinking this.

Jul 242014

If you follow this blog,  you’ve probably already heard about the OMG LARGEST AQUATIC INSECT FOUND IN CHINA!!!1! that’s been making the rounds this week. If not, take your pick of news outlets covering this random and bizarre press release.

As is the case whenever insects break into the mainstream news cycle, I’ve had various interpretations of the story sent to me by text message, Facebook, Twitter, passenger pigeon, etc. While I certainly appreciate friends, family and followers making sure I saw it, I must say I was a little dumbfounded why, of all the newsworthy insect stories this week, this is the one that went viral.

After thinking about it a little longer, I came to the shocking conclusion that it’s probably because it’s a huge insect (d’uh), and more importantly, because it was found somewhere that isn’t North America. The latter is important because it automatically has the allure of being exotic, and something that can only possibly exist outside of our ho-hum existence in boring old North America.

Allow me to let you in on a little secret: there be giants here, too.

In fact, we have our very own gigantic species of Megaloptera (the same group of insects that is currently dominating the mountains of China and  clickbait news sites) in eastern North AmericaCorydalus cornutus.

Two male Corydalus cornutus specimens with various household items, because apparently that's how scientific measurements are made and I didn't have any eggs in the lab.

Two male Corydalus cornutus specimens with various household items, because apparently that’s how scientific measurements are made these days and I didn’t have any eggs in the lab. Also, Canadian quarters are the same size as American quarters in case anyone thinks I’m pulling a fast one with funny money.

Not only do we have such monster insects in North America, they can often be found in your neighbourhood! These two were collected in Guelph, Ontario, less than an hour outside of Toronto.

Why exactly is a slightly larger insect (the specimens pictured here have a wingspan of 15cm while the Chinese specimen was 21cm) so astounding to people when something larger than their iPhone could literally fly into their life any moment now*? For one, dobsonflies depend on clean streams and rivers to survive, and if your urban watershed has been degraded or polluted, then your chances of going toe-to-toe with one of Nature’s Giants aren’t going to be great. Add to that the fact that they’re generally more active at night and you have a phantom that can only conceivably be found in far away places and comic books.

It just serves as another reminder that just because an insect is massive, don’t assume you can’t find something similar for yourself close to home. Also, giant insects with their wings spread create headaches for insect museums…

A less than ideal storage solution for giant Megaloptera specimens

A less than ideal storage solution for giant Megaloptera specimens


*- I had a female Corydalus nearly drop on my head while walking the dog in downtown Guelph late at night a few summers ago. I’m not sure who was more startled, me, the dog, or lady dobsonfly!

May 132014

A public service announcement:

Not all "Bugs" are created equal.

Not all “Bugs” are created equal. (Both images in the public domain, via Wikipedia)

The colloquial use of “bugs” to refer to bacterial microbes by a bioremediation specialist in Bozeman, Montana lead to a spectacular Taxonomy Fail on the local nightly news.

Watch the video from KBZK News here.

In case they remove the video (which I actually hope they do), here’s a screen cap demonstrating the problem.

So. Much. Fail.

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.


This story was brought to my attention by Dr. Michael Ivie of Montana State University on the Entomological Collections Network email listserv.

Jan 232014

Seeing how Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has suddenly become a bastion for conservation biology, ornithology and science outreach with the announcement that a bird sanctuary has been named in his honour in Israel, I put together a little memento for him to hang in his office. Hopefully it will serve to remind him just how awesome birds and nature are, as long as they aren’t getting in the way of his Albertan oil field development plans, of course.

Stephen Harper's The Birds Sanctuary Poster

All kidding aside, the fact that another country thought that it was appropriate to bestow an honorary doctorate on and name a scientific research facility after a man who has been on a not-so-subtle campaign against scientific research & evidence-based policy making in Canada for the past 8 years is an absolute farce.

I guess in the end the joke is on me though. I’m the one spending the prime of my life fighting against the anti-science rhetoric being spewed by my elected officials to earn a PhD the old-fashioned way instead of just dismantling research divisions, field stations and libraries that don’t support my political platform!

Yep, he sure showed me…

Aug 312013

I was browsing Malcolm Campbell’s (highly recommended) weekly science link collection this morning, and came across an article in Nautilus on the newly described olinguito species. I was really enjoying the article, until the third to last paragraph, which triggered a bit of Twitter rant. Continue reading »

Aug 162013

Yesterday a new carnivorous mammal was described from Andean Ecuador (Bassaricyon neblina; the BBC has an excellent write up about it), and it’s been getting a lot of media attention. While I’m happy whenever the work of a taxonomist gets talked about, I have a suspicion that cute, fuzzy things get a greater proportion of that attention.

I pointed out on Twitter that while the one new mammal got international attention, 8 new skink species, 5 new sponges, 4 new water mites, a new fresh water shrimp, a new nematode and a new caddisfly, along with 8 new species of plants (and these were just the species published in Zootaxa & Phytotaxa) were described without much, if any, fan fare.

After my grumpy little observation, Rachel Graham (@PictureEcology) made an interesting suggestion:

That got me thinking: is it our attraction to cute things that puts them in the news, or, thanks to more attention in the past and fewer species in total to be found, that describing a new mammal is so unusual that it’s newsworthy? So, I looked into it a little, did some back-of-the-napkin calculations, and tried to see why we seem to hear about some new organisms more than others.

Now, before I get into it, let me state that this is a very rough approximation of the taxonomic literature based on a few hours of quick searching, and I’m 100% confident that I’ve not found every relevant paper. This is just for fun, and should be taken with a pretty large grain boulder of salt. That being said, I think it’s suggestive of what’s happening, and at the very least might jump start some conversation. Also, this is only taking into account new, living (i.e. not fossil) species described in 2012, so beware small sample size distortion.

According to this Wikipedia list, there were 34 new species of mammals (Class Mammalia — ~5.5k described species) described in 2012 (the fact that there’s an updated list of newly described mammal taxa on Wikipedia would seem to lend credence to a Mammal Bias, but I digress): 16 bats, 9 rodents, 4 marsupials, 3 primates and 2 shrew-like things. Some of those, like Cercopithecus lomamiensis, got some media attention, while the others didn’t (I don’t recall hearing much excitement over the new bats, rats and shrews for example).

Who doesn’t love this face? Cercopithecus lomamiensis, one of the bigger taxonomy stories of 2012.

Now what if we look at other, less cuddly groups of organisms? Like sponges (Phylum Porifera — ~9k described species) for example. I found 54 new species of sponge described in 2012, which is a fairly similar ratio of new:known as mammals. I may be mistaken, but I can’t recall seeing a sponge on the home page of any news agencies (although the Lyre Sponge — Chondrocladia lyra — was selected by ASU as one of the Top 10 New Species of 2012).

Same story with harvestmen (Order Opiliones — ~6.5k described species): I located 46 new species for 2012, which is a few more than the mammals, but I kind of doubt there were reporters knocking on arachnidologist’s doors inquiring about them.

Finally, let’s look at rotifers (Phylum Rotifera — ~2.2k described species), those neat little creatures that whirl around in pond water. In 2012, as far as I can tell, only 1 new species was described. One. As far as rarity of discovery goes, it doesn’t get much more unusual than that, and I think it’s safe to assume no one heard about Paraseison kisfaludyi, even though it sounds pretty interesting (it’s only the fourth species described in it’s Order, and it lives INSIDE the carapace of a tiny crustacean — seriously cool).

I think we can safely say that while mammals may indeed be infrequently described, that’s not the reason they make the news, and that we’re all saps for those large eyes and furry bodies that remind us of Rover, Kitty, and ultimately, ourselves.

So, is there a distinct Mammal Bias in the news media? Probably. Is that a bad thing? Maybe not. While it’d be nice to see some of the other new & fascinating creatures being described by the world’s taxonomists be spotlighted, as long as people are reminded we still don’t know our neighbours very well, and that there are a lot of dedicated people out there working hard to introduce them to us, then I think we’re making progress.

It’s not like newly described invertebrates don’t make the news cycle (a couple of recently described dance flies were getting some attention earlier in the week thanks to some good-spirited nomenclature), it’s just that there’s a whole world of interesting biology and taxonomy waiting to be told outside of the cuddly stuff. All you need to do is look.


Quick footnote with an anecdote: the number of people involved in the description of a new mammal species heavily outweighs the number of people involved with the invertebrate groups I looked at. For the 34 mammal species described in 2012, 107 people were listed as authors on the papers (3.14 people/new species); Opiliones – 26 authors for 46 species (0.57 people/new species); rotifers – 2 authors for 1 species; and sponges – ~35 authors (I lost count) for 54 species (~0.65 people/new species). I’m not really sure what this means (if anything) other than we could really use more taxonomists working on invertebrates, but I thought it was interesting.