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!

Sep 292015

What makes a good mystery? Well, usually a death is involved, there’s an unexpected plot twist along the way, and undoubtedly a shadowy figure no one expects ends up playing a central role. Toss in a few scorpions, a handful of maggots, and a dead body and you’re well on your way to a New York Times bestseller! But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself, s0 allow me to set the scene.

Mesobuthus martensii

The Chinese scorpion, Mesobuthus martensii, is a species of medical interest, not just because it has a stinger and can inflict injury on others, but because the chemicals of its sting are being explored for our use in medicine. Peptides produced in the stinger have been used as antimicrobial agents, have been shown to reduce convulsions in epileptic rats and cancerous tumours in human cell cultures. However, because of its newfound value to medicine (and a long-standing role in Chinese traditional medicine), wild populations of the Chinese scorpion are declining across their native range (from Mongolia to North Korea and Japan), and the species is now considered vulnerable by Chinese conservation biologists. Needless to say, this is one scorpion species whose natural history would be good to understand, and yet one we know very little about.

Working from a brief and poorly recorded observation of fly larvae hanging around a dead scorpion, a team of researchers lead by Cheng-Min Shi set out to understand the natural enemies and parasitoids of the Chinese scorpion and started by combing Niushou Mountain for scorpions, collecting a few hundred scorpions in the process. They then brought the live scorpions back to the lab and waited and watched to see what would happen. What they found however, raised many more questions: questions that extend far beyond the mountains of Northeastern China.

Of the 317 specimens they brought back to the lab, 73 died within the first nine days, the majority of which soon spawned dozens of wriggling, late-instar maggots. After rearing many of these maggots to adulthood, and sequencing the DNA of both adults and larvae, the researchers were able to put a name on the first recorded parasitoid for this important scorpion species: Sarcophaga (Liosarcophaga) dux, a species of flesh fly in the family Sarcophagidae. Parasitoid flesh flies aren’t that unusual; flesh flies have been recorded in a wide variety of hosts, from grasshoppers and millipedes to crabs, and even frogs. And flies parasitizing scorpions isn’t even that unique; there are tachinid flies that are known parasitoids of other scorpion species. But what is unusual is that we had already found the larvae of Sarcophaga dux before, and they didn’t come out of a scorpion.

It turns out that Sarcophaga dux is actually a relatively common species of flesh fly, known from across Asia and Europe, with a range stretching all the way from Japan to France. The species has even managed to spread throughout the South Pacific, reaching as far away as Australia and Hawaii. Until now we had thought it to have been closely associated with humans, following us around the world and feeding upon our waste, among other things: an adult fly was once captured on a dead body in Switzerland and studied for forensic purposes, while a few maggots were removed from the ear of a newborn baby in Thailand, which, it bears pointing out, is definitely not the same thing as a scorpion. So now we have a species that in some places is a parasitoid, in other places a saprophage (feeding on microbes and fecal matter), but also a sarcophage when the opportunity arises (feeding on dead stuff that it didn’t kill itself). Oh, and it can cause myiasis and survive by eating living tissue, like in that baby’s ear, or in cattle. It’s not uncommon to see a range of species in a genus exhibit each of these different life styles, or even for species to evolve from one life style to another as they shift from generalists to specialists (or vice versa). The Sarcophagidae in particular have evolved parasitic and parasitoidism many times independently, but an all-in-one package like this? That’s unheard of.

How can a species display a life history that ranges from the incredibly specialized role of scorpion parasitoid to a jack-of-all-trades at home in the big, bright world of garbage, dead bodies, and ear canals? By all accounts a parasitoid without its host should die, and a generalist omnivore should not be able to outsmart the immune system of a scorpion. Welcome to the mystery of the unexplainable life history.

Can you tell which specimen comes from where? Left, from Thailand (assumably collected with carrion bait)(Sukontason et al., 2014); Centre, from Thailand, aural myiasis in child (Chaiwong et al., 2014); Right, male reared from scorpion (Shi et al., 2015).

Can you tell which Sarcophaga dux specimen comes from where based on the male genitalia? Left, from Thailand (assumably collected with carrion bait)(Sukontason et al., 2014); Centre, from Thailand, aural myiasis in child (Chaiwong et al., 2014); Right, from China, reared from scorpion (Shi et al., 2015). Click to enlarge and take a closer look.

Clearly something is going on here, and it’s going to take some very careful sleuthing to figure out what Sarcophaga dux really is. By looking at the genitalia of male flies, the tool that cracks the case for most fly taxonomists, you’d be hard pressed to tell which specimens had been raised inside a scorpion and which came from free-ranging maggots. But when Shi and colleagues looked closer at the DNA, they found that the flies they reared from scorpions differed from the rest of the Sarcophaga dux specimens by a consistent 1.25%. And while a genetic difference of 1.25% may seem insignificant, it represents the first clue that Sarcophaga dux may be more than just a single species with a confoundingly diverse life history.

And that’s the best thing about studying natural history and taxonomy. Unlike a mystery novel that’s wrapped up with a nice, pretty bow by the final page, when we begin unravelling one taxonomic mystery, we invariably stumble upon a new wave of unknowns just waiting for our curiosity to be piqued.

Main paper:

Shi, C.-M., Zhang, X.-S. & Zhang, D.-X. (2015) Parasitoidism of the Sarcophaga dux (Diptera: Sarcophagidae) on the Mesobuthus martensii (Scorpiones: Buthidae) and Its Implications. Annals of the Entomological Society of Americahttp://dx.doi.org/10.1093/aesa/sav090

Supplementary papers:

Chaiwong, T., Tem-Eiam, N., Limpavithayakul, M., Boongunha, N., Poolphol, W. & Sukontason, K.L. (2014) Aural myiasis caused by Parasarcophaga (Liosarcophaga) dux (Thomson) in Thailand. Tropical biomedicine 31, 496–8.

Sukontason, K.L., Sanit, S., Klong-Klaew, T., Tomberlin, J.K. & Sukontason, K. (2014) Sarcophaga (Liosarcophaga) dux (Diptera: Sarcophagidae): A flesh fly species of medical importance. Biological research 47, 14.

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 »

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: 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%)).

Jan 042015

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

Vermeulen J.J. & Marzuki M.E. (2014). ‘Charopa’ lafargei (Gastropoda, Pulmonata, Charopidae), a new, presumed narrowly endemic species from Peninsular Malaysia, Basteria, 78 (1-3) 31-34. DOI:

Nov 282014

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.

Oct 142014

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.


MILLIPEDES (DIPLOPODA: POLYDESMIDA), Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington, 116 (3) 273-282. DOI: DOI: 10.4289/0013-8797.116.3.273


If you’re curious, I asked Millipede Man Derek Hennen about the biology of cyanide-laced millipedes, and he provided a few references and info.

Mar 202014

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.

Nov 222013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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