May 072015

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

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

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


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:


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%)).

Mar 302014

Blank Page


The blank page, the biggest obstacle to my success.

I’ve been thinking about this post for 4 years. I’ve reworked what I want to say countless times on my walk to and from the lab and considered ways to tie it all together while laying in bed staring at the ceiling, but, until last week, I didn’t know how, or even when, it would begin.

I’ve put off writing about blank pages and my writing struggles because it so often begins with me staring at, and subsequently backing away from, a blank page. Did I mention I have a problem writing when faced with a blank page?

By late 2010 I had a full molecular DNA dataset prepared and analysed for my Master’s that showed some interesting relationships among the flies I study, and I proceeded to write up the results for my thesis. I moved on to the other major chapter of my thesis, and then defended my work. The whole thing was well received by my committee, and I was granted my degree in 2011 with the expectation that I’d make a few relatively minor changes and then submit the chapters for formal peer-review.

Well, after the final few months of pushing to get my thesis ready to defend, I needed to decompress and had no desire to look at my work for awhile. I figured after a few weeks of doing something — anything — else, I’d be ready to come back and reanalyse the data, rewrite the paper and submit  my work to an appropriate journal, and then never have to look at it again. Instead, I got busy working on other projects, writing a book, teaching, and then eventually starting my PhD, all the while having this paper hanging over my head, like a rusty guillotine just waiting to fall.

It wasn’t long until every word I wrote for the blog, for grant applications, or even emails elicited an increasingly larger pang of guilt that those words should be going towards that paper, to the point that nearly every aspect of my life was tainted by anxiety over it.

For nearly 4 years I let it slide while busying myself with other projects and tasks, telling myself that next week will be the week that I look at it again, until this fall when (with a not-so-subtle nudge from my PhD committee) I forced myself to get it done, or perhaps die trying. After all new analyses, totally redrawn figures, and about a dozen written drafts spanning several months, I finally submitted the paper two weeks ago. The feeling of relief when I finally pressed that submit button came immediately, and I finally realized that I hadn’t been devoting my full attention to any of my other projects or responsibilities.

So why bring all this up now when the paper hasn’t even gone out for review, and will undoubtedly require more work post-review before I can finally be done with it? Because I need to get over my hesitancy to put my thoughts on paper (or whatever this digital equivalent of paper should be called), and I suspect I’m not the only one who faces these obstacles.

My qualifying exams are coming up, which means several weeks of intense studying followed by days of writing compelling papers in a set amount of time, on demand. I’ve always approached this blog as a tool for self-improvement, so I plan to continue using it to force myself to write more frequently, to get past my fear of that blank page.

And for anyone out there currently in the midst of graduate work or projects that require writing, don’t let that blank page stand in your way: all it takes is one word scribbled down to defeat it.

Sep 012012

September 1, 2012. Can anyone explain to me where the summer has gone? It feels like just yesterday that the snow was melting and I had grand plans of exploration, doable to-do lists to do, and plenty of time to enjoy the summer, but now BugShot is finished, a new crop of undergrads are moving into the University of Guelph residences, and the fall entomology conference circuit is quickly upon us!

Good thing I can bank on the Bug-o-sphere to keep the summer flowing throughout the year.

Continue reading »

Jul 212012

Exciting news since the last Weekly Flypaper: Piotr Naskrecki, orthopteroid taxonomist, photographer, and author (Relics and The Smaller Majority) has started a new blog — The Smaller Majority. So far Piotr has been killing this whole blogging business, with fascinating posts on tropical entomology and macrophotography tips. I’m pretty sure I bookmarked every post he made for future reference, but here are a few of my favourites:

Now onto the rest of the best from the last 2 weeks!

General Entomology

If you ever need a gift idea for the Dragonfly Woman, she’s got a nice wishlist of field guides that any nature nut would appreciate.

Speaking of gifts, we’re right in the midst of wedding season, and if you need nuptial gift ideas, why not take a page out of the insect world.

Erica McAlister, the Diptera curator at the Natural History Museum, London, takes you on a backstage tour of the NHM insect collection and shows off some spectacular specimens, including a grasshopper hugging a mouse. Seriously.

What’s the biggest bug? The North Carolina State University Insect Collection has a couple of options to answer that.

Entomology is a hobby all unto its own for some people, but it also happens to be a sub-hobby for some fly fisherman!

My wife and I had a date night this week and went to see The Amazing Spider-Man. I really enjoyed it, but was a little disappointed that Peter Parker didn’t snack on a fly or two at some point in the movie. Even if you’re not an arachnid-infused superhero, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t consider eating bugs as Doug Yanega explains to the University of California Food Blog. The Weird Bug Lady even has a tasty sounding recipe for entomological power bars to get you started!

Flies – Diptera

Apparently I missed the memo about Photo Bombing blogs, as Matt Bergeron, Dave Stone and Alex Wild all showed off gorgeous photos of bombyliid bee flies.

Brian Brown is having a pretty good month for publications, with his latest discussing phorid flies which are parasites of endangered ants.

Researchers have bred “super” smart fruit flies which can count. I for one, welcome our new Dipteran overlords.

Black flies take the majority of bad press for Northern pests, but don’t forget to watch out for moose flies while in Alaska.

Robber flies are popular with a lot of people, including devoted beetler Ted MacRae. And with their own special facial hair, the mystax, it’s no wonder.

The Geek demonstrates that sometimes when you’re photographing flies, you’re only able to snipe one photo before they take off.

Beetles – Coleoptera

Emerald Ash Borer (Agrilus planipennis) has continued it’s inevitable march across eastern North America, this week being detected in Connecticut for the first time. What’s important about this is that Cerceris fumipennis, a solitary wasp which specializes on buprestid jewel beetles, was the first to detect it’s presence in the state. This is the sort of Bio-surveillance that Phil Careless and the rest of Team Cerceris had hoped for, and now hopefully more government agencies will invest in expanding this simple monitoring tool.

Cerceris fumipennis is also a useful tool for collecting other jewel beetles besides EAB as Ted MacRae recently found out.

Of course you don’t need to always rely on other species to find your jewel beetles for you, as the Geek reminds us to always look.

Some people can be picky eaters,  but the same holds true for dung beetles, with species preferring different types of brown sauce, and Bug Girl is on it.

Why might it matter what type of dung a beetle prefers? Because places like Australia and New Zealand don’t have any native dung beetles, making agricultural waste a significant problem. Becky Crew has a nice feature on the work being done to bring dung beetles to New Zealand.

Not all scarab beetles like to feed on dung though, like these Green June Beetles that Derek Hennen found in his yard.

With summer comes the opportunity to watch fireflies flashing in the night. Check out this nice flash guide to see if you can recognize any of the species in your backyard, and contribute to a citizen science program.

Ants, Bees & Wasps – Hymenoptera

This photo of a flying bumblebee by Adrian Thysse might be the best of it’s kind that I’ve ever seen.

The Gratton Lab at the University of Wisconsin – Madison is working on an automated bee identification project.

Urban beekeepers in Edmonton are pushing for changes to bylaws that keep their hives in hiding.

Meanwhile in Edmonton, Matthias Buck has discovered 2 new species of paper wasps right under our noses.

The School of Ants is holding a student essay contest with a nice cash prize.

Eric Eaton shows that solitary wasps can be used for monitoring other insects, like stink bugs (potentially including the mega-pest Brown Marmorated Stink Bug) or membracids.

Moths & Butterflies – Lepidoptera

National Moth Week is coming up this week, so expect most of the bug-blogosphere to get a little scaley!

The Dragonfly Woman started a little earlier by announcing an event she’s helping with at her new job.

Other Insect Orders

Troy Bartlett thinks ants mite do a better job of taking care of their herds of membracids.

Ever wondered why your car attracts some insects like dragonflies and horse flies? The Dragonfly Woman has a great explanation.

It looks like the Cleveland Museum of Natural History is becoming ground zero for mantid research in North America.

The Neuroptera are an amazing group of insects with incredible diversity. Jonathan Wojcik provides a nice overview of that diversity, and introduced me to an amazing group called the Spoonwings (family Nemopteridae). Brian Cutting showed off a member of another one of my favourite groups, the Mantis flies, while Derek Hennen found a spectacular antlion adult.

Spiders – Arachnida

“Oh look at that lovely lady beetle! It looks so cute and cuddly and OH MY GOD!!!”

Next time I go to Chicago, I’m definitely rewarding the Chicago Hilton with my business for being so awesome with their natural history and outreach!

I hate when I get a spider web across my face while out walking in the woods, but I think I might have to learn more about spiders and their webbing from a book Bug Girl recently reviewed, Spider Silk by Leslie Brunetta and Catherine L. Craig.

Now if all spiders lived among the canopy of trees like this Hentzia mitrata that Chris Buddle and colleagues are studying, then I wouldn’t have to worry about silk wrapping my face…

Speaking of Chris, he went, he saw, he videoed; Beringian pseudoscorpions in the Yukon that is!

Taxonomy & Systematics

A parasitic isopod was recently described and named after Bob Marley. Too bad the authors messed up and published the name a few months earlier in an ecological paper before formally describing it. Everybody repeat after me — in taxonomy, the order in which you publish or publicize MATTERS.

Of course, because this species was named after somebody famous, the media took off with it and the BBC published a top 10 list of what I’m now going to start calling “Celebronyms”. Have I mentioned how much I hate these top 10 species lists lately? Because I do. With a passion. Ugh.

Where should money be invested to solve the taxonomic impediment? Quentin Wheeler of Arizona State University thinks technology leads the way (i.e. the University of Arizona’s new funding to revitalize and digitize their collection), while Bob Mesibov of the Queen Victoria Museum (Tasmania) argues that more taxonomists need to be hired first. Me? I think technology will be useless if there’s no one around to develop, maintain and actually use it. I’ll also need a job in 3-5 years, so I might be a bit biased here.

The Willi Hennig Society Meeting was held at the end of June, and Itsy Bitsy attended. So did Salva at Computer Cladistics, who has a fantastic detailed review of the conference.

Kevin Peterson is literally uprooting the mammal phylogeny with a new technique he’s developed. My question is what makes this new technique more accurate to the true evolutionary history of the mammals? Micro-RNA is also being used to study Diptera evolution, but I can’t understand why it’s considered more “accurate”. It’s a wonder I get any sleep at all with these types of questions rolling around in my head…

Does the way that we traditionally draw and think of phylogenies (i.e. a “tree” of life) block us from considering new ideas on relationships?


My post on Citations, Social Media & Science gathered some attention last week, including that of the researcher who’s improperly cited blog started the whole discussion. The author of the paper also stopped by and explained they tried to include the citation, but the publisher wouldn’t allow a blog to be cited like a journal. I’m not really sure why a publisher has so much control over the content of a journal rather than the editorial staff of said journal, but I find it troubling.

This is pretty handy for people just starting out in academia/grad school – Field Guide to Scientific Conferences: An Ecological Review.

Also handy, this complete walkthrough by Steve Hamblin on laying out and developing a poster for a conference. Many, many good tips here for balancing form and function. It’s also a pretty interesting view inside the head of a Post-Doc…

It’s good to remember that it matters how you write in academia, not just what you write.

Science Communication & Social Media

Bora Zivkovic (aka the Blogfather) drops a massive backgrounder on the history and rise of science blogging.

I’ve seen a bunch of people start blogs only to watch them peter out after a few weeks/months. As a blogger who has a relatively small (yet loyal) readership, I can sympathize with this post on Why Blogs Fail.

Here’s 10 Apps That Put Science In Your Pocket.

Dr. Olin Sander compares Twitter popularity during the recent Evolution meeting in Ottawa to a sage grouse lek. Awesome.


Ted MacRae demonstrates why the placement of your lighting sources and choice of background can have a dramatic effect on a photo’s feel.

Alex Wild has a nice flowchart of his digital darkroom workflow.

Adrian Thysse has a lovely interview with renowned nature photographer Heather Angel.

Other Fun Stuff

David Winter does a great job of explaining why red heads are here to stay. Looks like my wife won’t be getting rid of me that easily!

This fish grows ant-shaped appendages to get laid. I feel like there’s an inappropriate joke in here somewhere…

Who needs cable TV when you can get all kinds of drama & comedy from social media?

Aquaman makes a terrible marine mammal. He also makes a terrible superhero.

What would happen if a pitcher threw a baseball at 90% of the speed of light? I suspect he’d be investigated for Perfomance Enhancing Drug use and never make it into the Hall of Fame.

Video of the Week

Carl Zimmer was a plenary speaker at the annual meeting of the Society for the Presevation of Natural History Collections a few weeks ago, and they just posted his talk on YouTube. It’s long (more than an hour), but it’s an interesting talk and well delivered.

Further Reading

Bora Zivkovic – The Science Blogging Weekly, July 13th 2012 – (I made the Top 10 posts list! W00T!)

Ed Yong – Missing Links, July 14, 2012

Ed Yong – Missing Links, July 21, 2012