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.
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.
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:
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%)).
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
When identifying insects, the further you want to identify them, generally the smaller the morphological characteristics you need to look for are. For instance, to recognize the taxonomic order Diptera, you need only count the number of pairs of wings an insect has (usually…), but to identify a fly to species, you may need to hone in on the presence or absence of a single bristle on its thorax, or middle leg, or genitals. But what about species or populations where even these characters may be too similar to confidently tell distinguish, and where you could potentially be overlooking and unknown amount of diversity, better known as the elusive cryptic species? Well, you could look at their DNA, and try to see if there are any differences there, or, if you work on black flies, you could literally look at their DNA. Like, actually looking at the shape and patterning of their chromosomes, specifically special clumps of DNA found in larval black flies called polytene chromosomes.
Polytene chromosomes are the jumbo-sized versions of normal chromosomes only found in cells involved with secretion, and for whatever reason, are only present in springtails (Collembola) and true flies (Diptera). Rather than replicating and then splitting themselves up amongst a series of daughter cells like normal chromosomes, polytene chromosomes replicate themselves over, and over, and over again, sticking together in clumps of hundreds to thousands of complete chromosomal strands all woven together into a thick rope of genetic instructions. By banding together like this, these special chromosomes reveal all kinds of fascinating information about species and speciation.
Starting in the 1930’s, while scientists were only just beginning to understand what chromosomes were and the role they played in genetics and heritability, dipterists began to notice that polytene chromosomes provided an untapped source of morphological characters to work with. Black fly taxonomists in particular latched onto this new dataset, largely because these over-sized chromosomes were easy to find in the silk glands of larval black flies, and provided a simple and low cost means of identifying species. Patterns of black and white bands, the locations and sizes of bulges, blisters, and rings of Balbiani all appeared to be conserved within populations and species, and with only 3 chromosomes to deal with, taxonomists, already tuned to look for the slightest differences and similarities between specimens, began to find all kinds of useful information; specific banding patterns that would be inverted in some species, but not in others; whole arms of chromosomes getting spliced onto the “wrong” chromosome; all three chromosomes getting jumbled up and stuck together in the middle like a genetic pinwheel with what they called a chromocenter.
By studying these “macrogenomes”, Simuliidae experts have been continuing to refine what a black fly species really is, and are beginning to unlock the mysteries of cryptic diversity.
Take, for example, work recently published by a group of black fly experts on the Old World subgenus Simulium (Wilhelmia). These flies originally came to the group’s attention due to an outbreak of black flies in Turkey which was driving down livestock production and tourism due to the sheer numbers of biting adults (those in Northern Canada can surely commiserate), and in order to figure out what species was responsible, decided to take a closer look. A much, much closer look, specifically at their polytene chromosomes.
After sampling larval black flies from across Europe, they discovered that what had recently been considered one generalist species found from England clear across the continent to at least Kazakhstan, Simulium (Wilhelmia) lineatum, was actually at least 3 species, each with unique differences in their chromosomes, and which replaced each other in streams as you head East!
Here you can see where the “actual” Simulium lineatum is found (blue) (although the authors note that something funny may be going on with the English specimen’s chromosomes, which could lead to further splitting), and where each additional species crops up as you move east, with Simulium balcanicum in green, Simulium turgaicum in red, and Simulium takahasii in yellow. The orange area without any data points is a void in the team’s data, but they have reason to suspect that several species recently described from China will fit into the pattern discovered in the west. Now that the team has worked out these basic limits for each species, they also hope to explore whether or not these species may be successfully mating with one another despite the differences in their chromosomes, or whether hybridization can occur between species pairs. All of this new information will in turn help us understand the intricacies of polytene chromosome taxonomy further, and continue to adapt black fly taxonomy to fit the total evidence available.
So by peering deep within the silk glands of black fly larvae, we can now weave together the ways in which simuliids diversified, and begin to understand the web of underlying mechanisms that make one species become two, or three, or more. It just goes to show that literally no matter how closely you look, there will always be surprises waiting to be found when it comes to fly taxonomy.
Adler P.H., Alparslan Yildirim, Onder Duzlu, John W. McCreadie, Matúš Kúdela, Atefeh Khazeni, Tatiana Brúderová, Gunther Seitz, Hiroyuki Takaoka & Yasushi Otsuka & (2014). Are black flies of the subgenus Wilhelmia (Diptera: Simuliidae) multiple species or a single geographical generalist? Insights from the macrogenome , Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, n/a-n/a. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/bij.12403
Adler, P.H., Currie, D.C., Wood, D.M. 2004. The Black Flies (Simuliidae) of North America. Cornell University Press. Ithaca, NY & London, UK. 939 pp.
Cyanide: poison of choice for jilted lovers, mystery writers, and entomologists alike. But we’re not the only ones to employ this potent potable in our chemical arsenal; polydesmid millipedes have been defending themselves with cyanogenic compounds for millions of years.
Of course, when one organism figures out a new way to protect itself using something that kills lesser creatures, it’s usually not long until somebody else evolves the ability to capitalize on that protection, even when it’s something as deadly as cyanide. Enter 2 new species recently described by John Hash of UC Riverside, Megaselia mithridatesi and Megaselia toxicobibitor, the Rasputins of the scuttle fly world.
Megaselia is an immense genus of Phoridae with a wide diversity of natural histories, so it’s perhaps no surprise that something like cyanide-siphoning could show up here, but that doesn’t reduce the magnitude of such a finding. But how does one go about associating tiny flies unknown to science with murderous millipede defenses?
John works primarily on another genus of scuttle fly that’s also associated with millipedes, Myriophora. Rather than stealing cyanide, these flies prefer to parasitize millipedes protected by another noxious chemical family, benzoquinones. To find these flies, he stresses the millipedes a little by shaking them in a paper towel-lined plastic tube hard enough to piss them off, but not enough to cause physical damage, leading them to exude their defensive chemicals onto the paper towel. John then laid out these poisoned paper towels, and sometimes tied up the annoyed millipedes like the sacrificial goat in Jurassic Park using dental floss, and waited for the flies to come in to the bait. While John was expecting to find new Myriophora species and associations, he states in his paper that discovering a Megaselia/millipede association was a golden example of serendipity in science.
With specimens and natural history notes in hand, John returned to the lab and gave these 2 new species especially fitting names; mithridatesi is an homage to King Mithridates IV of Pontus, who famously immunized himself to a variety of poisons by consuming them in small, sub-lethal quantities, and toxicobibitor, which literally translates to “poison drinker” from Latin.
If you want to hear more about John’s work, and see millipedes on dental floss leashes, check out this video from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, which was filmed while John was down helping out with the Zurqui All Diptera Biodiversity Inventory in Costa Rica. It was while he was here, surrounded by dozens of other dipterists, that he discovered the poisonous habits detailed in this paper. That certainly makes for a killer field trip if you ask me, even without the cyanide.
Hash J.M. (2014). SPECIES OF MEGASELIA RONDANI (DIPTERA: PHORIDAE)
ATTRACTED TO DEFENSIVE COMPOUNDS OF CYANOGENIC
MILLIPEDES (DIPLOPODA: POLYDESMIDA), Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington, 116 (3) 273-282. DOI: DOI: 10.4289/0013-87188.8.131.523
A public service announcement:
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.
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.
Taxonomist Appreciation Day has just come to a close where I am, and it was a lot of fun to see so many people express their thanks for the work that taxonomists do. I highly recommend browsing through the hashtag #LoveYourTaxonomist on Twitter, and seeing what people had to say.
I thought it might be interesting to take a look at what taxonomists were up to on this holiest of days. Personally, I reviewed a really great manuscript about an exciting new species of fly that I can’t wait to talk about more when it’s published, but here’s a quick run down of the new animal species* that were officially unveiled to the world on March 19, 2014.
We’ll start small with a new species of yeast, Scheffersomyces henanensis, described from China today.
Ren Y, Chen L, Niu Q, Hui F (2014) Description of Scheffersomyces henanensis sp. nov., a New D-Xylose-Fermenting Yeast Species Isolated from Rotten Wood. PLoS ONE 9(3): e92315. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0092315
This charming creature is Pentacletopsyllus montagni, a benthic copepod that was found deep in the Gulf of Mexico.
Bang HW, Baguley JG, Moon H (2014) A new genus of Cletopsyllidae (Copepoda, Harpacticoida) from Gulf
of Mexico. ZooKeys 391: 37–53. doi: 10.3897/zookeys.391.6903
Allow me to introduce you to Anacroneuria meloi, a Brazilian stonefly named for the person who collected it (Dr. Adriano Sanches Melo). This was one of two new species described in this paper.
Bispo, Costa & Novaes. 2014. Two new species and a new record of Anacroneuria (Plecoptera: Perlidae) from Central Brazil. Zootaxa 3779(5): 591-596. doi: 10.11646/zootaxa.3779.5.9
This odd looking creature, Hydrometra cherukolensis, is actually a true bug! The eyes are the bulges in the left third, and like all hemipterans, they have sucking mouthparts tucked under the head (not visible in this photo). The authors of this study described another species of these strange looking bugs as well.
Jehamalar & Chandra. 2014. On the genus Hydrometra Latreille (Hemiptera: Heteroptera: Hydrometridae) from India with description of two new species. Zootaxa 3977(5): 501-517. doi: 10.11646/zootaxa.3779.5.1
This little leafhopper, Nirvanguina pectena, is only 1/2 centimetre long!
Lu, Zhang & Webb. 2014. Nirvanguina Zhang & Webb (Hemiptera: Cicadellidae: Deltocephalinae), a new record for China, with description of a new species. Zootaxa 3977(5): 597-600. doi: 10.11646/zootaxa.3779.5.10
Not only was Luchoelmis kapenkemkensis described, but so was it’s (probable) larva, an unusual occurrence for insects.
Archangelsky & Brand. 2014. A new species of Luchoelmis Spangler & Staines (Coleoptera: Elmidae) from Argentina and its probable larva. Zootaxa 3977(5): 563-572. doi: 10.11646/zootaxa.3779.5.6
While not a new species, Susuacanga blancaneaui was transferred into the genus Susuacanga from the genus Eburia today. Taxonomists don’t just find new species, they also reorganize genera and species as they gain a better understanding of variations within and relationships between taxa.
Botero R, JP. 2014. Review of the genus Susuacanga (Coleoptera, Cerambycidae, Cerambycinae). Zootaxa 3977(5): 518-528. doi: 10.11646/zootaxa.3779.5.2
The authors of this study not only described a new species of wasp, Ropalidia parartifex, but they also produced a wonderfully illustrated identification key to help others recognize these wasps, as well as recording 6 species previously unknown to occur in China.
Tan J-L, van Achterberg K, Chen X-X (2014) Pictorial key to species of the genus Ropalidia Guérin-Méneville,
1831 (Hymenoptera, Vespidae) from China, with description of one new species. ZooKeys 391: 1–35. doi: 10.3897/
Not only do taxonomists have to be able to recognize new species, they often also need to be able to illustrate how they’re different from one another. Here, the authors drew the final abdominal segments of a male Platypalpus abagoensis to demonstrate how it differs compared to the other 5 new species they were describing; the true intersection of art and science!
Kustov, S., Shamshev, I. & Grootaert, P. 2014. Six new species of the Platypalpus pallidiventris-cursitans group (Diptera: Hybotidae) from the Caucasus. Zootaxa 3977(5): 529-539. doi: 10.11646/zootaxa.3779.5.3
Perhaps the most striking new species described today, Callicera scintilla‘s species epithet literally means glimmering or shining in Latin. Another species was also described in this study, but alas, it isn’t a shiny copper.
Smit, J. 2014. Two new species of the genus Callicera Panzer (Diptera: Syrphidae) from the Palaearctic Region. Zootaxa 3977(5): 585-590. doi: 10.11646/zootaxa.3779.5.8
Of course, not all insects described today are still around to learn their names. This fossil walking stick, Cretophasmomima melanogramma, has been waiting to be discovered for roughly 126 million years!
Wang M, Be´thoux O, Bradler S, Jacques FMB, Cui Y, et al. (2014) Under Cover at Pre-Angiosperm Times: A Cloaked Phasmatodean Insect from the Early Cretaceous Jehol Biota. PLoS ONE 9(3): e91290. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0091290
Continuing with fossils, Rukwanyoka holmani represents not only a new species of snake, but also a new genus, and is only known from a handful of vertebra.
McCartney JA, Stevens NJ, O’Connor PM (2014) The Earliest Colubroid-Dominated Snake Fauna from Africa: Perspectives from the Late Oligocene Nsungwe Formation of Southwestern Tanzania. PLoS ONE 9(3): e90415. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0090415
What would a story about new species be without a dinosaur? Making headlines as the “Chicken from Hell“, Anzu wyliei was an omnivorous bird-like dinosaur believed to have had feathered arms, which inspired the generic name: Anzu, a Mesopotamian feathered demon. The species epithet, wyliei, however, is in honour of Wylie J. Tuttle, the grandson of Carnegie Museum patrons! There’s no data provided whether young Wylie has the temperament or feathers of a Chicken from Hell, however.
Lamanna MC, Sues H-D, Schachner ER, Lyson TR (2014) A New Large-Bodied Oviraptorosaurian Theropod Dinosaur from the Latest Cretaceous of Western North America. PLoS ONE 9(3): e92022. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0092022
Finally, meet Phyllodistomum hoggettae, one of two parasitic trematode worms described today. This species is also named in someone’s honour, specifically Dr. Anne Hoggett, co-director of the Lizard Island Research Station, a research station within the Great Barrier Reef in Australia where the researchers conducted their work. Whie it may not be a dinosaur, it’s still an honour to have a species named after you, even if that species is a parasitic worm that lives in the urinary bladder of a grouper…
Ho, H.W., Bray, R.A., Cutmore, S.C., Ward, S. & Cribb, T.H. 2014. Two new species of Phyllodistomum Braun, 1899 (Trematoda: Gorgoderidae Looss, 1899) from Great Barrier Reef fishes. Zootaxa 3779(5): 551-562. doi: 10.11646/zootaxa.3779.5.5
If you’re keeping track at home, that’s a total of 22 new animal species described in one day, which is actually below the daily average (~44 new species/day)! This isn’t including all the other things taxonomists work on, like identification keys, geographic records, phylogenetics, biogeography and the various other taxonomic housekeeping that needs to be constantly undertaken to ensure the classification of Earth’s biodiversity remains useful and up to date!
So the next time you look at an organism and are able to call it by name, take a moment to think about the taxonomist who worked out what that species is, gave it a name, and provided a means for you to correctly identify it, and perhaps check to see what new creatures are being identified each and every day!
*- That I could find. I imagine there are more that were published in smaller circulation or specialized journals that I’m not aware of as well.
On the island of Raivavae, one of the Austral Islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, buried deep beneath the surface of a swamp in mud accumulated at the foot of a stream for thousands of years, scientists have found all that remains of a unique new species of Black Fly (Simuliidae): larval head cases left behind when the flies molted into pupae. These subfossils, not yet hard and mineralized like conventional fossils yet still preserved in near-perfect condition by the mud, not only raise the question of how a tiny little fly found its way to an island in the middle of nowhere, but also provide the only evidence of a murder mystery 2 million years in the making.
The missing species on Raivavae is Simulium Inseliellum raivavaense, recently described by Douglas Craig of the University of Alberta and Nick Porch of Deakin University in Australia, from material collected in 2010. Despite the subfossil larval head capsules being the only “specimens”, Craig & Porch were able to determine S. I. raivavaense was a new species based on the shape, position, and number of teeth on the hypostoma, essentially the lower lip of a black fly larva’s mouth.
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.
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: 10.3897/zookeys.353.6301 (OPEN ACCESS)
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:
@BioInFocus I completely agree with you, but it seems that new mammals are also much less frequently described.
— Rachel Graham (@PictureEcology) August 15, 2013
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).
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.