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.
Even though all specimens in a natural history collection (should) have a label explaining where, when & how they were captured, sometimes that doesn’t include the full story behind how a specimen came to rest in the collection. Consider the following.
While enjoying a few cold beverages on a hot summer’s evening on the porch of a friend’s cottage, our conversation was interrupted by the *thud* of a beetle bouncing off the siding. Attracted to the lights of the cottage, a Lucanus stag beetle found itself suddenly the highlight of the evening, and I quickly scooped it up and placed it into an inflated Ziploc bag, intending to photograph it once I got home the next day.
Things got busy though, and I ended up stashing the baggy & live beetle in my backpack to take into the lab and photograph instead. The next morning I walked to work, told my lab mate about my great beetle find, and pulled the Ziploc bag out to proudly display my specimen. Rather than a glorious reveal however, and all I had in hand was an empty Ziploc; apparently the beetle had had enough of waiting around and had chewed its way to freedom!
I proceeded to empty my backpack, searching every crack & crevice in search of the missing stag, only to conclude it had not only escaped its plastic cell, but also my zippered backpack as well! As I sat and wondered where it may have made its dramatic escape (perhaps the greeting card store in the mall I had stopped at on my way in to work, a scenario that I couldn’t help but giggle over) and cursed my beer-induced logic that a Ziploc bag was sufficient to imprison a two-inch beetle with formidable jaws, I resigned myself to the fact that I had been outsmarted by the Houdini of the beetle world.
A few nights later, while sitting on the couch at home watching late-night TV, I heard what sounded like plastic shooting across the laminate floor, emanating from where where our cat, Callie, was playing across the room. When I got up to see what trouble she was getting into, low and behold there was my missing stag, skittering across the floor after a playful thwack from the cat! While certainly dead, considerably dried up, and covered in an embarrassingly thick coating of dust from spending time under the furniture, it was also miraculously complete, not even missing its lamellate antennae or fragile tarsi.
Callie, Stag Hunter
A week soaking in ethanol on my desk (out of reach of the cat, who was unimpressed with me confiscating her new toy) to rehydrate, and voila, a perfectly good specimen ready to become a part of the scientific record! It’s impossible to predict how this specimen may contribute to our understanding of biodiversity and stag beetle biology in the future, and while its official label data will provide future researchers the necessary context to use this specimen as a data point, the full story of how this beetle wound up in our collection is yours.
It just goes to show that there’s more to a specimen than meets the eye, or the label.
The escaped Lucanus stag beetle (Lucanidae), pinned, labelled, and ready for science.
Photo copyright Omid Golzar, reproduced here for editorial comment only.
If your first thought was “Why are there jumping spider eyes photoshopped on to the butt of a beetle?”, then you’re correct!
I don’t normally have a problem with digital art like this; it encourages creativity, makes the viewer think about what their seeing, and introduces a bit of whimsy (and who doesn’t like whimsy?). What I do have a problem with, is when digital art is portrayed as biologically accurate, and marketed as such to the public in a major news outlet.
But, the blame shouldn’t rest entirely on Mr. Golzar, and I think the editors who run these stories are the ones who should be embarrassed. Taxonomy Fails are one type of error (and one which I have a little more sympathy for), but this equates to a complete failure to recognize basic biology (i.e. insects having compound eyes made up of multiple facets), something that most 8th or 9th grade students could surely point out! It should have been clear that the photo had been drastically manipulated, and thus it should have no place in the newsroom.
To illustrate, how do you think a mainstream media news editor would react if I suggested they run these images?
Sure they’re both photos of Justin Bieber, but they’ve been heavily modified using Photoshop, rendering them unusable in a newsroom (despite being pretty hilarious otherwise). And yes, that’s a Lamprey in the image on the right, which is about the same evolutionary difference as putting spider eyes on a beetle.
Obviously no self-respecting news outlet would run these, so why is it OK to run a non-human photo without ensuring it was a legitimate representation of the subject? Combined with the nearly daily Taxonomy Fails, I would argue that biological illiteracy in the media has been steadily increasing over the past several years, and I fear the impacts it may have on public perceptions of nature, the environment and science in general. I don’t have a simple solution to curb this trend other than continuing to draw attention to these mistakes, and hope the media starts to notice and remembering it is still their responsibility to present honest & accurate information, no matter what the subject matter.
The response to the jewel beetle field guide has been incredible thus far, with nearly 900 people requesting more than 1300 copies in less than 2 weeks! With all this attention to beetles around here lately, I figured I’d post a little reminder about which insect order still rules these parts.
Proof that 2 parasitic heads are more gruesome than 1. Parasitic flesh/satellite flies (Sarcophagidae) forever entombed as they attempt a late emergence from the abdomen of a captured Buprestis consularis jewel beetle. Photo by Adam Jewiss-Gaines.
We came across this little tragedy while examining and photographing specimens for the field guide, and Adam Jewiss-Gaines did a great job of bringing their sorry plight to life (so to speak) in this image-stacked photo.
I tried to track down what species (or even subfamily) these flies may be, but I couldn’t find any record (in my admittedly quick search) of sarcophagids using Buprestidae as hosts. According to the Manual of Nearctic Diptera Vol. 2, these little guys likely belong to the subfamily Miltogramminae (based on their seemingly bare arista), which are commonly known as satellite flies for their habit of orbiting ground nesting bees and wasps and kleptoparasitizing their collected prey, but I’m unsure whether they will parasitize free-living beetles. If they are in fact members of the Sarcophaginae (some of whom do have bare arista), perhaps these individuals are members of the genus Sarcophaga, species of which have been reared from beetles and various other insects.
Without being able to examine the rest of their bodies, I may never know what these flies are, but I find it fascinating that they matured and began their escape only to be killed and preserved within our collection!
UPDATE Dec. 17, 2012: Never mind about this being a free-living beetle! I double checked the specimen label, and this beetle was actually collected from a Cerceris fumipennis colony in Highland Hammock State Park, Florida, which almost certainly makes these Miltogramminae satellite flies.
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!
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!
Sample key to genera page. All characters used in the key are illustrated with either high magnification photographs or simple illustrations.
Trachys generic page from Field Guide to Jewel Beetles featuring original artwork by scientific illustrator/artist Glendon Mellow.
Buprestis striata field guide page showing colour variations.
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.
If you don’t believe me, take a look at this newly described weevil, Timorus sarcophagoides Vanin & Guerra, from Brazil, which is doing everything it can to fool you into thinking it’s a flesh fly (family Sarcophagidae).
Perhaps I should have named this The Biweekly Flypaper since it seems summer activities are conspiring against me, but hopefully I can get back on track soon.
(Inter)National Moth Week (NMW)
I don’t know if you noticed, but the Bug-osphere took (Inter)National Moth Week by storm and scaled new heights with their mothy contributions! Here’s but a sampling of the moth-related postings from my fellow bug bloggers.
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:
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.
Evolutionary biologists from around the world have converged on Ottawa this weekend to partake in the First Joint Congress on Evolutionary Biology. Luckily for those of us who couldn’t make it, there are a ton of people tweeting about talks, the conference and evolution in general. I’ve been watching the #evol2012 hashtag all morning while writing this, and although I’m even more jealous of those that are attending the conference in person, I’m glad I can enjoy a slice of the conference through the tweets of others!
1- Not sure whether I’ve explicitly mentioned this here on the blog, but I’m starting my PhD at the University of Guelph in September! Lots of work to finish up before then, but I’m really excited to become a student again.