Friday, March 30, 2012

"That's not Asindulum tenuipes, that's my wife!"

In Neal Evenhuis's Catalog of Keroplatidae of the World (PDF), he lists two described species of Asindulum as found in North America. This is a keroplatid genus of four described extant species, the other two in Europe and the Middle East, and four more fossil species found in Baltic amber. It's a distinctive genus among the mess which is the Orfellini, a tribe of closely related genera which are still being worked out. Both Asindulum and the sister genus Macrorrhyncha have long mouth parts, at least the length of the head. The only species studied in any detail, the Palearctic Asindulum nigrum, is known to feed from flowers of the parsley family (Apiaceae) (Betchev 2010).

Asindulum or Macrorhyncha feeding from a flower. Since the separation is based on wing venation, and this specimen has it's wings folded, I'm not sure which genus. If you know the flower, please tell me! (CC Tom Murray)

As I may have mentioned previously, I'm in the very beginnings of working out the North American Keroplatidae. All the Nearctic fungus gnat families are sorely in need of revision, but I have made this group my darling. The first step in any revision is pooling the literature, and determining the condition of all the type specimens. The types are individual or series of specimens which the names are supposed to refer. I say "supposed to", because type specimens are often found damaged, mislabeled, or not found at all. Often the descriptions in the literature are enough that the identity of the species is not in question, even without a type. Other times, the only description was the original one, and the type is not available. If the species was named more than 100 years ago, that description may be essentially useless, and the type must be found to clarify the meaning behind the name. Otherwise, it will become a nomen dubium, a "doubtful name" which, although available under The Code, may not refer to anything meaningful.

So, I am one by one figuring out the providence of the North American keroplatid types, including the two species of
Asindulum mentioned above. Asindulum montanum was described by the German dipterist Victor von Röder in 1887, and though the description is short and includes no useful illustrations, plenty of later taxonomists have identified members of this species. The male and female syntypes are housed in the Zoological Institute of Martin Luther University in Halle, Germany, and while I will still need to see them, I can at least rest assured they exist.

The other Nearctic species,
Asindulum tenuipes, was more of a mystery. It is only mentioned once in the keroplatid literature, and that is in the original type description. The species was described by Francis Walker in 1848, a worker notorious for his method of describing species, which can be summed up as "piss poor". And indeed, the description gives us only minimal information and no illustrations. It's not even clear where the type is housed, although much of Walker's collections are at the Natural History Museum in London.

The only clue is in the name of the person who collected the type, a "G. Barnston, Esq". Further searching revealed that George Barnston (see painting here) was an Scottish fur trader employed by the Hudson Bay Company in the early 1800s. During his 42 year tenure with HBC he also engaged in naturalist study, including entomology and botany. The type of
A. tenuipes, then, was undoubtedly collected during his time at St. Martin Falls on the Albany River, Ontario, from 1834-1840, since Walker lists this as the type location. In 1843-1844, Barnston took a year long furlough to England, and during this time donated his entire collection of insects to the British Museum (Brown and Van Kirk 2000). Despite Dr. Evenhuis listing the location of the type as unknown, I suspected it was still housed there.

An aerial photograph of the Albany River, Martin Falls, Ontario, the supposed type location of A. tenuipes. (Via the Martin Falls (Ogoki Post) community homepage)

I contacted Dr. Erica McAlister, the Diptera collections manager at the Natural History Museum in London (who, by the way, has an excellent blog). She was very helpful in my search. Yes, indeed, they have the type of A. tenuipes, and despite the giant pin nearly cleaving it's thorax in two, it's in pretty good condition. Also, would I like it imaged? (Oh, would I!)

Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, imaging was unnecessary. Yes, this was the type labeled "Asindulum tenuipes". Yes, it was in good enough condition to photograph. Yes, it matches the type description. But this was
not a keroplatid of any kind. This was in fact a blepharicerid.
A net-winged midge (Blephariceridae) of the genus Agathon. Note: NOT a fungus gnat. (CC Tom Murray)

This was not unknown. That Walker had made a mistake was not noted at the time of Vernon Kellog's North American revision of the Blephariceridae (1903), but it was known by 3 years later (Riley 1908). Indeed, the Blepharicera tenuipes Group of species has been the recent subject of close study (Moulton 2007, Jacobson 2010). The type of Asindulum tenuipes is now referred to Blepharicera tenuipes. And somewhere in the transition this bit of information was lost in the fungus gnat literature. I was consoled by Nigel Wyatt, the Curator of Diptera, that this is a normal occurrence with Walker types. "I don't find it at all surprising that Walker could have mistaken a blepharicerid for a fungus gnat", he told me, "working here and often dealing with Walker's type material I have found this level of mistake is not unusual!"

This whole exercise is illustrative of the winding pitfall strewn road that is taxonomic research. A taxonomist might search days, months, years for a single specimen, and when at last she comes upon it tucked away in a museum drawer, she finds it is not at all what she was looking for in the first place.

The MOST IMPORTANT THING is, when this happens, write it down. Don't make some other researcher come along and spend vital time digging up such a tidbit. Publish it in print, on-line, somewhere. Natural history progresses by the accumulation of knowledge, and that only works if we add to and organize the pile.

Works Cited

Bechev, D. 2010. Flower visitation of fungus gnats from the genera Antlemon, Asindulum and Macrorrhyncha (Diptera: Keroplatidae): published data and a new record. ZooNotes 7: 1-3.
Brown, J. S. H., and S. M. Van Kirk. 2000. Barnston, George - Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online. University of Toronto. [WWW]
Evenhuis, N. L. 2006. Catalog of the Keroplatidae of the world. Bishop Museum Bulletin in Entomology 13, Bishop Museum Press, Honolulu.
Jacobson, A. J. 2010. Phylogenetic analysis of the Nearctic Blepharicera Macquart (Diptera: Blephariceridae) with an emphasis on the eastern Blepharicera tenuipes Group Hogue. PhD Dissertation, University of Tennessee - Knoxville.
Moulton, J. K., and G. R. Curler. 2007. A new species of net-winged midge of the genus Blepharicera Macquart (Diptera: Blephariceridae) from the cumberland plateau of Tennessee. Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington 109: 920-929.
Riley, W. A. 1908. The divided eyes of Blepharocera tenuipes Walker. pp. 280-281 in Howard, L. G. (ed.). Proceedings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science Fifty-Sixth and Fifty-Seventh Meetings. Gibson Brothers, Washington, D.C.
Walker, F. 1848. List of the specimens of dipterous insects in the collection of the British Museum. Part I. British Museum, London.


Morgan Jackson said...

This is a great story (albeit really unfortunate for you and the other keroplatid workers I suppose) and a perfect example of the thrill of the taxonomic hunt! I'm glad to hear you're diving deeply into the Diptera as well! I'm not sure whether the position was ever filled, but Kevin Moulton had a nice PEET PhD project available last fall. Might be worth contacting him if you're interested in doing some fly grad work as he may have other projects available!

ZL "Kai" Burington said...


I'll check with Dr. Moulton to see if that is still available. I've also been in contact about the tachinid research assistantship at Wright State University.

It would be really nice to get back to grad school. Despite the above, I'm starting to get discouraged. I really just want to do primary taxonomic research and natural history. Sure, it would be nice if I got some experience with molecular characters, but they really aren't necessary for most of what I'm interested in. I'm trying to sell myself but it's so hard to go dive off into someone else's interests when I have so much work of my own to do! This keroplatid research isn't going to drive itself, and it's not like I need any more schooling to get it done.

Morgan Jackson said...

It's a tough go at the moment, and I definitely understand how you feel. After a year as a "freelance" entomologist I'm hoping to hear good news about my federal and provincial funding applications in the next few weeks so I can get back into the game! If I hear of any other positions I'll be sure to forward them on to you! Good luck!