Monday, December 19, 2011

The story behind "Azana sinusa: remarks on range and records."

I previously promised to blog every one of my future publications. And finally, I am able to follow through on the first one. I'll be using Eisen's brilliant blog post about the "Stalking the 4th Domain" paper as a format guideline, but since this is very much a small scale natural history story rather than a large scale molecular biology story, I'm mostly making this up as I go. As a natural history story, it may not seem like science to all people. Taxonomist FPD Cotterill calls natural history an ideographic science, a science of details that provides the primary support for the wide scale theorems of law-like or nomothetic science. And as such, denigration of natural history does not fair well for biology in general. So I will pass by the naysayers and move forward.

Burington, ZL. 2011. Azana sinusa Coher, 1995 (Diptera: Mycetophilidae: Sciophilinae): remarks on range extension and collection records. Check List 7(6):815-816. PDF

The Backstory

In late 2010 I was attempting to organize the wet-stored specimens of Sciaroidea (fungus gnats) in the Clemson University Arthropod Collection. The CUAC does not have a very large collection of the group, only 100 to 200 specimens, most of them collected before 1990 by former students or in flight intercept traps. Fungus gnats are of great interest to me, since they are greatly understudied in North America, with perhaps less than 50% of all species described. In particular, I'm interested in the Family Keroplatidae, the predacious or web-spinning fungus gnats, the larvae of which spin a web of sticky silk to capture small arthropods or fungal spores. You may have heard of the cave glowworms of New Zealand, a popular ecotourist destination; these bioluminecent fungus gnat larvae are keroplatids.

I was using the genus key in the Manual of Nearctic Diptera (MND) (now available for free online) to identify the adults. Despite being thirty years old and somewhat out of date, the MND worked well enough for my purposes. When I identified specimens from two different vials as the genus Azana, Family Mycetophilidae, I was intrigued. The specimens were less than 10 cm in length, with a distinctive reduction or loss of the medial and cubital wing veins (see figure at end).

At the time of the Nearctic Manual's publication, no North American species of Azana had been described, although Vockeroth believed there was at least one species on the continent. Both Jean Laffoon and Elizabeth Fisher had previously noted collections of the genus which remain unconfirmed, from Minnesota and Cape Breton Island (Nova Scotia), respectively. It wasn't until 1995 that Edward Coher finally described this species from Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts as Azana sinusa, which tells you just how rarely collected this organism is. From an additional male specimen in the pinned collection, I was able to confirm from the genetalia that these were probably all A. sinusa Coher. Although Peter Kerr of California Department of Food and Agriculture recently described two new western species, A. malinamoena and A. frizzelli, A. sinusa remains the only Eastern species.

All these facts were not so intriguing as was the /location/ of the collections: the coastal plain and sandhills of South Carolina. The type specimens from Coher's paper were collected in the mountains and coastal areas of New England, approximately 1200 km to the North, with no specimens ever collected below 40 degrees latitude. Since this continues to be a poorly known, seldom collected species, and since the specimens I had found in the CUAC were so far outside the known range, I decided to publish this information.

The Journal

I wanted to put a note here about the journal I chose for publication, since most readers are probably not familiar with it. Check List is a peer reviewed, open access online journal specializing in regional species lists and notes on range and distribution. Traditionally, a short note such as this would have been published in Entomological News, but that particular journal has had a large backlog over the last year; as I already had one article waiting for publication in that journal, I thought it wise to try Check List. Though the website and editors are Brazilian, the journal is published in American English, and the editors were timely about corresponding with me. The best thing about this journal is that it's completely open access and free for authors. Since they do not publish anything that might be considered a nomenclatural act or new species descriptions, a print version is not necessary. It also means that there is no limit on publication size, and that what limits the publication speed is the peer review process, correspondence time, and copy editing. I will say that the journal guidelines are very picky about formatting, and I was asked to remake the distribution map I originally provided; this is perhaps for the best. I will definitely be coming back to this journal with future manuscripts. They fill a publication niche that used to be a large portion of the entomological literature, but fallen into disrespect because publishing short notes is nowadays seen as cheating, as padding one's CV.

The Denouement

Some readers may be wondering why I would take the time and effort to publish such a short note on the range of a rare and seemingly insignificant species. And I admit, the reviewers taxed me with this same question: is this really /worthy/ of publication? Well, certainly the editor would have rejected it outright if he didn't see something worthy in it. And of course, it would have never been published if the reviewers hadn't eventually felt it worthy. The photo I published with it is the first photo (to my knowledge) ever taken of this species, and the distributional data and map the most complete. It continues that we know essentially nothing of the biology of this species. Little information was contained on the specimen labels, and it's so rarely collected that trends are hard to draw. Coher, in his 1995 publication, said that the morphology of the mouthparts suggests the adults are nectar feeders, but we have no observations of this. Kerr collected his Azana species from flight intercept traps suspended from redwood in California. Might Azana sinusa as well dwell in the tree tops? There's no way of knowing from the scant information we have, though this behavior would suggest why it is rarely collected; combining the data from all publications, less than 50 specimens have ever been reported.

Overall, working on this manuscript has given me more puzzles than answers. But, I think it was overall good; it synthesizes the known information, and shows us a wider picture of the species than we realized. I never undertook the project as an attempt to pad my CV or make a name for myself. Goodness knows there are easier ways to accomplish this. The synthesizing and editing was far more work than I had anticipated, and the process far longer than I had hoped, but I think it turned out alright. Despite my past criticisms of Encyclopedia of Life, I plan to create a full entry using the information in this and previous publications.

The species Azana sinusa, and little forgotten or seldom noticed species everywhere, remind me of my favorite vignette from Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac:

Within a few weeks now Draba, the smallest flower that blows, will sprinkle every sandy place with small blooms.

He who hopes for spring with upturned eye never sees so small a thing as Draba. He who despairs of spring with downcast eye steps on it, unknowing. He who searches for spring with his knees in the mud finds it, in abundance.

Draba asks, and gets, but scant allowance of warmth and comfort; it subsists on the leavings of unwanted time and space. Botany books give it two or three lines, but never a plate or portrait. Sand too poor and sun too weak for bigger, better blooms are good enough for Draba. After all it is no spring flower, but only a postscript to a hope.

Draba plucks no heartstrings. Its perfume, if there is any, is lost in the gusty winds. Its color is plain white. Its leaves wear a sensible woolly coat. Nothing eats it; it is too small. No poets sing of it. Some botanist once gave it a Latin name, and then forgot it. Altogether it is of no importance--just a small creature that does a small job quickly and well.

Leopold was king of qualitative natural history, he wrote in a way that even the smallest and seemingly insignificant of organisms glowed with individuality and purpose. While I don't claim to equal him by any means, I hope to shed some light on the matter of species like Azana sinusa, which now at least has a face to put on the name.

Azana sinusa male, left habitus

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Misconceptions about taxonomy.

I know Gawker is supposed to be a snarky internet publication concerned more with the hipness of it's readers than relaying actual pieces of news, and vertebrate paleontology stories aren't exactly the general subject matter of this blog. But this article by Max Read on a new species of cerotopsid discovered in the basement of the British Museum which calls paleontologists "morons" is pure idiocy, and is a clear example of the public misunderstanding of how new species are discovered.

As I noted recently, natural history collections are repositories for specimens that grow in value over time from information added to these acquisitions by researchers. The true value of any individual specimen is often not revealed until years after it's acquisition. As curators and visiting scientists use the specimen for their research, include it in publications, and use that information to educate the public, the specimen increases in value. Even broken and fragmentary items like the fossil in question are not tossed out, and over time many of these items will end up in "cigar box limbo". What the former curator thought was a few rubbish pieces of a previously described cerotopsid dinosaur was nevertheless saved, and a century later found to represent a new, seemingly intermediate group between the well known Centrosaurus and Styracosaurus.

That this is a common occurrence would no doubt come as a surprise to Mr. Read. Many of the new species described every year are already sitting in the shelves of natural history collections around the world, sometimes for hundreds of years. These specimens are unidentified, or incorrectly identified, or identified as another closely related species. Figuring out which of these are new species is the job of an expert in that group who has the experience to tease out these minor differences and understand their taxonomic meaning. And it may not be until a hundred years after the acquisition till a taxonomist of that caliber comes along. The length of time between taxonomic revisions of a particular group is painfully long, and the number of available experts is spread thin across all the work that needs doing. This problem is called the Taxonomic Impediment, and as curatorial positions are retired and unfilled, the number of groups without experts only increases. What seems moronic to Mr. Read is actually an issue of funding for basic taxonomy, and not a lack of intelligence on the part of the British Museum's curators.

In addition, I don't think the general public understands just how much research goes into describing a new species. First, the researcher in question has to have some sort of expertise in the group so they can actually see that differences that would tip off an undescribed species. This requires years of careful observation; it's not something which can be taught in a classroom. Then the expert often has to examine the type specimens, which usually means travel to at least one distant museum. Finally, after all these tedious comparisons, the taxonomist has to publish the discovery, which requires illustrations, summaries of all the material examined, intense editing, and wrestling with reviewer comments.

The portrayal of the alpha taxonomist as a jungle explorer in pith helmet reaching down to pick up a flower or beetle, hoisting it high and dubbing it "Excaliber arthurius" on the spot is not only wrong, it misrepresents the true difficulty of our science. It makes people think that, well, paleontologists who find new species in their museum basement are morons. Or that throwing money at tropical expeditions is going to somehow, in itself, describe all species on the planet. Or that museums are defunct, musty, and mostly useless artifacts of the past. The truth is that taxonomists are underfunded, understaffed, and being shoved out of the picture by these misconceptions.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Natural History Collections in a Nutshell.

Dr. Gamer, a beetle researcher at the British Museum of Natural History, has a nice blog post which illustrates what natural history collections do, using tiger beetles as an example.

Natural history collections in general are a repository for physical specimens, whether biological, geological, or anthropological. These objects are collected by researchers at the museum or donated by experts working in the field. A particular collection may have a local or worldwide scope, and may specialize in a particular group of organisms or topic, depending on the past interests of researchers connected with the collection. The objects or specimens are organized in a way that makes them easily retrievable for future research (such as a general reference system).

At some point a researcher will either come to the museum and look at these specimens, or request a loan. When the loan is returned, it's expected that the specimens will have some value added to them. Perhaps information about where they came from, or species identification. Either way, the objects are returned to the collection and add to its overall value.

This is the natural history collection (and natural history research) cycle in a nutshell: Collect specimens; Organize specimens; Loan specimens to experts; Specimens are returned with identification or other information to make the collection ever more complete and useful. Repeat indefinitely. A natural history collection grows in size and value over time from this small set of activities.

Museums are a step higher than this, and house multiple natural history collections. The growing value of the collections is used for research by the curators, and the curator's research is used to educate the public. But they are first and foremost for housing collections, which is where the value and primary work within a museum starts.