A fruit fly is not a mammal, and other revelations from the museum

There’s been a lot of discussion in the past day about a new paper published in Science. The paper is an opinion piece about an argument that’s played out many times in the past, namely: should scientists kill specimens to get them into museums and collections for future study? (Spoiler alert: yes, they should)

The authors argue, from their experience and perspectives in either vertebrate biology or environmental ethics, that scientific collecting can, and does, contribute to the extinction of rare species. They cite examples of such events. They then offer alternatives to the collection of whole voucher specimens (things like photographs, tissue samples, sound recordings). All perfectly reasonable on the face of it, except that pretty much any taxonomist or ecologist or evolutionary biologist who makes use of natural history collections for research knows that the proposed solutions are just not very realistic, oh and that some of their examples are misinterpreted.

In the end, this paper will simply fuel the anti-collecting sentiments espoused by a subset  of people who just don’t understand how scientific collecting, taxonomy, museum research, or global biodiversity really work.

Here’s the problem with the authors’ proposed solutions to the Great Voucher Hunt (well, technically, here are just a few of the many problems):

1. The examples highlighted by the authors are a very small subset, are entirely vertebrate centered (except for a single shout-out to rare plants), and some are misinterpreted. Scientific collecting did not contribute in any significant way to the extinction of the Great Auk (or many other species). The number of specimens of Great Auks, Dodos, Passenger Pigeons and many other iconic extinct species in museum collections is vanishingly small compared to the numbers that were cooked, killed for feathers, killed for fun, eaten by rats and cats, etc. etc. etc. Blaming scientists for the extinction of species such as the Great Auk is like blaming Albert Einstein or Marie Curie for Cold War nuclear proliferation.

2. The paper ostensibly focuses on a small and critical group of (vertebrate) species that are known to be endangered, or were considered extinct and then rediscovered. And yes, it’s right to be concerned about the long-term prospects for their survival. However, I think that’s there’s a whole army of other factors we need to be more concerned about (habitat loss, introduced species, pathogens, human activities, climate change) than scientific collecting. But the authors then extrapolate out to broader arguments about the desirability of killing for voucher specimens or museum specimens. Unfortunately, that extrapolation fails because the vast (VAST) majority of species on earth are not in the same category as their examples (even the examples that they got right).

3. Flies are not mammals. Rotifers are not mammals. Neither are fungi, diatoms, nematodes, tardigrades, slime molds, algae, or most other species on the planet. We cannot identify the vast majority of these species from photographs. We cannot record their sounds. We usually cannot take a sample of DNA without killing the organism (because they’re SMALL). The reality is that in order to document, understand, and implement conservation strategies (where needed) for most species on this planet we have to kill specimens and study them in the lab in order to have any hope of knowing, with reasonable confidence, what they are.

4. Museums aren’t simply morgues for the long term storage of dead things. And voucher specimens are not just trophies from our awesome trip to Borneo or Tierra del Fuego. That view is a ridiculous caricature. The collection and curation and maintenance of specimens in natural history museums is a crucial necessity in documenting biodiversity. Natural history collections are the source of raw data to address a vast array of research questions. They are the place where we discover new species, they are the repository of the data that allow us to verify an enormous body of previous research. Collections facilitate the great majority of taxonomic research. But they do much more than that: collections are the source of data that allowed us to demonstrate the effect of pesticides on the thickness of egg shells, to document body size changes in species over time as a result of climate change, to track the decline and disappearance of some species (and no, NOT by collecting!), and the increase and spread of others. Many excellent authors in recent years have written about the importance of natural history collections in broader questions about ecology and evolution. These papers are easy to find.

Little stories of change - bumblebees in the Lyman Collection

Some bumble bees have declined in North America. But not because of collecting. We used collections to track that decline.

Collections already take a bit of a beating from university and museum administrators and funding agencies because of the shocking lack of comprehension about their unique value and contributions to science. We don’t need more colleagues adding fuel to the fire simply because they don’t understand what we do. It’s not that hard to find a natural history collection, and the people inside are generally a pretty pleasant bunch. The work we do may be perceived as old-fashioned and unnecessary. That’s wrong. Stop by for a coffee sometime. We’ll be glad to enlighten you.

Reference:

Minteer BA, Collins JP, Love KE, Puschendorf R. 2014. Avoiding (Re)extinction. Science 344: 260-261.

 

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Natural history’s place in science and society

One of the themes that runs through many of the posts on this blog is that natural history matters, that it’s relevant, that it’s science, and that there’s still a lot we don’t know about the natural history of some of our most common and widespread organisms.

We’ve just published a paper in BioScience that expands on that theme. The paper, now online in advance access (and freely available for download!) examines case studies that show how basic natural history knowledge can be used to address problems in human health, food security, resource management and conservation, and also how lacking, or ignoring, natural history knowledge can just make things worse.

We talk about the benefits of good natural history knowledge, and the costs of not considering natural history. In a range of examples from early detection and control of cholera, to bioprospecting for pharmaceuticals; from early failures of the Green Revolution in Africa, to collapse of commercial fisheries, to successes in pest management; from the ecological cost of forest fire suppression in the western United States, to the benefits of incorporating natural history knowledge in wetland management and recreation.

Despite the obvious (to us anyway!) importance of natural history in science and society, many people have argued that the scientific study of natural history has been in decline in recent years. If it’s true, then that’s a problem. So we decided to find out. It turns out that, by the criteria we examined, there is a problem.

We looked at a few lines of evidence to track the decline of natural history through the past several decades. Here’s the short version:

• The number of natural history museums and collections has been declining since the 1990s.

• Although the total number of PhD degrees in biology has been rapidly climbing since the early 1960s, the proportion of PhD’s in disciplines related to natural history has declined by about 50%.

• At the undergraduate level, the proportion of pages in general biology textbooks declined from almost 70% in the 1930s to less than 40% in 2005. Over the same time period, the minimum number of natural history-related courses required to get a Bachelor’s degree in Biology in many US colleges also declined (to a current average just over one. One course). Clearly, we have a problem.

So what’s the answer? How do we revitalize natural history in science?

• Claim the title! Be willing to identify as a naturalist. Natural history may not be deemed modern, or relevant, or necessary by some of our colleagues or administrators, but they are just wrong.

• Connect, collaborate, interact. Seek out like-minded people, regardless of their background or focus. Have the conversations to show how important natural history is, and then dive into the research and education that’s so necessary to build our knowledge of natural history.

• Embrace technology! We have a vast array of new tools for studying natural history, as well as the means to connect to a global network of naturalists, researchers and users. Use the new tools!

• Go where the people are, and go where the nature is! Natural history does not just happen in the distant wild places. It happens in cities and parks and houses. It happens in the lab and the museum. We, as a community, need to rekindle and encourage an interest in nature in young people. And they don’t need to go very far for that to happen.

There’s a lot of work to do, and quite a few minds to change. Let’s get started.

Reference

Tewksbury, J.J., Anderson, J.G.T., Bakker, J.D., Billo, T.J., Dunwiddie, P.W., Groom, M.J., Hampton, S.E., Herman, S.G., Levey, D.J., Machnicki, N.J., Martinez del Rio, C., Power, M.E., Rowell, K., Salomon, A.K., Stacey, L.,Trombulak, S.C., and T.A. Wheeler. 2014. Natural history’s place in science and society. BioScience doi:10.1093/biosci/biu32

 

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Revisionist history: new taxonomy of old flies

Taxonomy is a dynamic science. It evolves over time. We collect new specimens, we develop new tools for studying biodiversity, and our theoretical approaches to describing the diversity of life change. All of these developments mean that the names of species and higher taxa change over time as our understanding of their limits and relationships change.

Stéphanie Boucher and I have just published a paper in the excellent taxonomic journal Zootaxa, in which we look back a century and revisit some little old flies from Ecuador. There’s a story to these flies, and we’re just the latest players in that story. And the story starts, not with entomologists heading out into the field with collecting gear, but with a group of French geographers, cartographers, mathematicians and military men . . .

Paul Rivet. Collector

Paul Rivet. Collector (source: Wikimedia Commons)

1901: After a couple of years of planning and negotiating, a French naval expedition sailed for Ecuador. The expedition was the Mission du service géographique de l’armée pour la mesure d’un arc de méridien équatorial en Amérique du Sud. And as the name suggests, their primary objective was to chart a meridian arc crossing the equator. At that time, many military expeditions included a naturalist among the crew. In the case of the Mission, that position was occupied by Paul Rivet — a physician, anthropologist, and naturalist. Although Rivet’s main scientific interest was anthropology, he was also kind enough to collect large numbers of insects in the later years of the expedition.

Theodor Becker, Describer (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Theodor Becker, Describer (source: Wikimedia Commons)

1920: Theodor Becker (1840–1928) was a Danish-born, German entomologist who had a particular interest in higher flies. Like many taxonomists at that time, he wasn’t primarily employed as one — he was the Commissioner of Municipal Buildings in Liegnitz (now Legnica, Poland). But in addition to his day job, Becker made enormous contributions to describing and cataloging fly diversity. Becker took on the task of identifying and describing the higher flies from the French expedition. One of the families he tackled was the leaf-miner flies in the family Agromyzidae. Becker identified eight species of these pretty little flies, three of which he described as new species.

2014: Stéphanie Boucher found a few things that didn’t make sense in reading Becker’s species descriptions, so she did what taxonomists frequently have to do when the published literature doesn’t match up with real specimens — she contacted our colleague Christophe Daugeron at the Musée National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris where Rivet’s specimens are housed and asked to borrow the specimens.

When the specimens arrived, we realized that some changes were required to Becker’s species. This isn’t that unusual in taxonomy, and it certainly doesn’t mean that Becker was a bad or sloppy taxonomist. It simply means that, a century later, we have a different view of what constitutes a “species” in these little flies. Becker tended to base his species on visible, external traits such as colour. At that time, many taxonomists tended not to delve into finer scale characters such as male genitalia, or ecological traits, such as host plants for leaf-miner flies. We now know, with the help of a lot more research, and a lot more specimens, that this is a wildly diverse family of flies, many of which look very similar externally. So, not surprisingly, we made a lot of changes to Becker’s species from the expedition.

In the end, we identified 14, not 8, species of Agromyzidae. And one of Becker’s species turned out to be a member of a completely different family — the Heleomyzidae (yes, that happens pretty regularly too).

Becker was exactly right about a few of the species. In three cases, though, he lumped together multiple species under a single name (one of his species is actually four very similar flies). He considered some of the Ecuadorian species to be the same as known European species, but we found distinct differences between them, usually in the very valuable male genitalia (that’s “valuable” in the taxonomic sense; they’re not actually worth very much at all). And three of the specimens turned out to belong to new species that Stéphanie described in the paper.

So what about that heleomyzid fly? Becker described a new species as Agromyza bipartita, but later authors weren’t convinced. They pulled it out of the Agromyzidae, but didn’t place it anywhere else (there are quite a few “homeless” species in taxonomy). When the specimens arrived from Paris we looked at the flies and I realized that Agromyza bipartita looked an awful lot like some South American heleomyzid flies in the genus Notomyza I’d recently been sorting. Fortunately, there was good material in our collection to compare it to and the mystery is now solved. Tentatively. Probably. Those weasel words are there because the specimen is a female, in poor condition, and it would take more, undamaged specimens to be more certain about its identity.

The business end. Male genitalia in some leaf-miner flies (from Boucher & Wheeler 2014)

The business end. Male genitalia in some leaf-miner flies (from Boucher & Wheeler 2014)

A hundred years ago, microscopes were simple, genetics was a brand new (re)discovery, phylogeny was not a tool we used, our understanding of speciation and reproductive isolation was pretty basic, and our understanding of global biodiversity was very different than it is today. All of those areas have undergone major advances in the past century, so it’s only reasonable to expect that taxonomy would change as well. When a few specimens of little old flies come out to see the light of day after so many decades, it’s not too surprising that they’re going to need a bit of an update.

Is this the end of the story? Not at all. That heleomyzid fly is still only tentatively classified. Plus three of the agromyzid species that Stéphanie recognized remain unnamed because we only had single specimens, either females or damaged males. There’s probably more, fresh, live material out there in the forests of Ecuador, waiting for the next Paul Rivet to wander by, sweep them up, and get them into a museum where taxonomists can find them and put a few more little mysteries to rest.

Reference and Sources

Boucher, S. and T.A. Wheeler. 2014. Neotropical Agromyzidae (Diptera) of the Mission Géodésique de l’Équateur: Becker (1920) revisited. Zootaxa 3779: 157-176.

Evenhuis, N.L. 1997. Litteratura Taxonomica Dipterorum (1758–1930) being a selected list of the books and prints of Diptera taxonomy from the beginning of Linnaean zoological nomenclature to the end of the year 1930; containing information on the biographies and patronymic genera of the authors listed in this work; including detailed information on publication dates, original and subsequent editions, and other ancillary data concerning the publications listed herein. 2 volumes. Backhuys Publishers, Leiden. x + 871 pp.

Schiavon, M. 2006. Les officiers géodésiens du Service géographique de l’armée et la mesure de l’arc de méridien de Quito (1901-1906). Histoire et Mesure 21: 55-94.

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Two flies, one leaf: new leafminers from Costa Rica

There are many reasons why insects are the most diverse group of animals on the planet One of them is herbivory. Feeding on plants opens a huge number of opportunities for insects to diversify. There are new food sources to exploit, new evolutionary ways of dealing with the complex mix of chemical compounds that plants use to defend themselves, and new ways to divide up an individual host plant in ways that reduce competition.

One of the most diverse families of plant-feeding flies is the Agromyzidae, or leafminer flies, so-called because the larvae live and feed sheltered in the nutrient-rich layers inside a leaf, leaving a distinctive mine that is visible from the outside. Lyman Museum member Stéphanie Boucher and her colleague Kenji Nishida in Costa Rica have recently published a new paper in the journal ZooKeys that illustrates how finely these little flies can divide up the world.

Stéphanie and Kenji have described two new species in the enormous genus Liriomyza, an ecologically interesting, and sometimes economically important, genus of agromyzid flies. Many agromyzids are host-specific — their larvae will feed only on a single, or a few closely related species of host plant. These two new species were described from the same host plant, Tree Poppy (Bocconia frutescens), a small tropical tree in the poppy family.

Liriomyza mystica (left) and L. prompta (right). Similar flies with different habits

Liriomyza mystica (left) and L. prompta (right). Similar flies with different habits.

Even though both species feed on the same host plant, they have evolved a convenient way of avoiding competition with one another. Liriomyza mystica larvae mine right along the large midvein and the petiole of the leaf, particularly larger and older leaves.

Mines of Liriomyza mystica in a thick midvein

Mines of Liriomyza mystica in a thick midvein. The arrow points to a larva.

In contrast, the larvae of Liriomyza prompta mine anywhere on the blade of the leaf, usually avoiding the midvein itself. They also seem less picky about the size of the leaf, and will feed on small to large leaves.

Mines of Liriomyza prompta in Bocconia leaves.

Mines of Liriomyza prompta in Bocconia leaves.

Leafminer flies are notoriously difficult to identify to the species level. The differences between adult specimens are very slight. These two new species can be distinguished from one another only by minor size differences in the adult flies, small differences in the male genitalia, and some small distinctions in the larvae. Not easy. On the other hand, the shape and location of the larval mines makes for a much more obvious difference between the two.

These two new species live and feed in the same neighborhood, but it’s very unlikely that they meet up and compete for food or living space. A single leaf may seem small to us, but to these little leafminers, it’s a world that’s big enough for everybody to get along just fine.

Reference:

Boucher, S. and K. Nishida. 2014. Description and biology of two new species of Neotropical Liriomyza Mik (Diptera, Agromyzidae) mining leaves of Bocconia (Papaveraceae). Zookeys 369: 79-97.

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Look up, way up: beetles and flies in the tree tops

Most insect collectors and other insect fans tend to walk through a forest with their eyes focused on the ground at their feet, or low undergrowth, or sunny spots above the path ahead. That’s where a lot of the insects are. But not all of them. There’s a whole world of diversity up in the forest canopy. There is a buzz of insect activity up there; it’s just hard to get up there to see it.

A forest has many layers.

A forest has many layers.

To get a sense of insect diversity in forest canopies, we either have to bring them down to us (by spraying knock-down insecticides into the canopy, for example), or we have to go up there and collect them ourselves. In a new publication that’s just come out in the journal Environmental Entomology, we used the second option to explore the changes in beetle and fly diversity as we go from ground level up to the canopy in maple forests here in southern Quebec.

The paper, entitled “Vertical stratification in beetles (Coleoptera) and flies (Diptera) in temperate forest canopies”, was a true collaborative effort that had its genesis a few years ago when Maxim Larrivée was doing Ph.D. research with my colleague Chris Buddle. Max was exploring arthropod diversity in temperate forest canopies using a mobile canopy lift that let him ride a bucket (more or less) up to the upper canopy of beech and maple forests around Montreal and sample arthropods. During the summer of 2008 two very keen undergrad students were working in our labs: Kristen Brochu with me, and Katleen Robert with Chris. We decided to have them do additional sampling for a new project, taking advantage of the mobile lift to set insect traps at different heights in sugar maple trees. The question was simple: how does the diversity of beetles and flies (two abundant insect groups in forest canopies) change as we go from near ground level, to the mid-canopy, to the upper canopy of the forest?

A trunk trap in action. Insects go in the top; results comes out the bottom.

A trunk trap in action. Insects go in the top; results come out the bottom.

The question may have been simple, but the field work and lab work was daunting. The window traps and trunk traps (essentially modified soda bottles) yielded large volumes of specimens that had to be prepared, mounted and sorted. Katleen and Kristen put in a huge amount of time and effort sorting through the beetles and flies, respectively — time consuming work that’s absolutely necessary if you hope to see patterns of species changes as you go up in height. After some preliminary analyses both students moved on to other opportunities as grad students (this happens in the highly mobile science game) and the manuscript went dormant until a couple of years ago when Ph.D. student Dorothy Maguire, who also has an interest in canopy arthropods, dusted it off and started running new analyses on the data. And that was what it took to get us back into research and writing mode and get the thing submitted.

So . . . what did we find?

We identified more than 160 species of beetles and 125 species of flies. However, this is a subset of the true species richness because we could not confidently put species or genus-level identifications on a few of the taxonomically challenging families (cecidomyiid gall midges, chironomid midges, rove beetles) in the context of this study.

The number of species and specimens of beetles didn’t change significantly as we sampled from 1.5 m above the ground, up to 10 m above ground and finally to 15–20 m into the canopy. On the other hand, there were more species and specimens of flies in the upper canopy than at ground level or mid-canopy (Diptera collectors take note!)

But overall species and specimen numbers are just one measure of diversity. In both orders we found differences in the community structure at different heights. This means that even if the overall species diversity didn’t change much, there were likely very different species near ground level versus the canopy. And the raw data back this up — some species were collected only in the understory; some only in the upper canopy.

So, if you go to the forest and want to know who lives there, you’ll need more than a standard insect net, more than a Malaise trap, more than some pitfall traps. You’ll need to look up. Way up. There are little-known worlds up above our heads, even here in the temperate middle of North America.

Reference:

Maguire, D.Y., Robert, K., Brochu, K., Larrivée, M., Buddle, C.M. and T.A. Wheeler. 2014. Vertical stratification of beetles (Coleoptera) and flies (Diptera) in temperate forest canopies. Environmental Entomology 43: 9-17.

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A year of change: 2013 in review

When you work in a university, change is constant. Students come and go as they start and finish their programs; colleagues come and go as new opportunities arise; old projects run to completion and new ones start to pick up steam; fieldwork and conference travel gets us out of the lab and on the road. Every day holds the promise of something new.

2013 was a big year for personnel changes in the lab. Grad students Katie Sim (co-supervised with my colleague Chris Buddle), Meagan Blair and Christine Barrie successfully completed their M.Sc. programs. Postdoc Laura Timms, who was an integral part of our Northern Biodiversity Program team, also wrapped up her time with the lab and has moved on to exciting new opportunities in Toronto. Stéphanie Boucher, the Lyman Curator since 2000, also left the lab — her position abolished by an administrative decision focused only on a budgetary bottom line, rather than on any recognition of the critical importance of natural history collections in research, teaching and outreach (such are the risks of doing fundamental research in an increasingly “corporate” university climate.)

On the other side of the equation, two new grad students started M.Sc. programs this year. Sabrina Rochefort and Élodie Vajda, both already experienced Lymanites through their involvement as undergrads in the Northern Biodiversity Program, stayed on to pursue their interests in empidid dance flies (Élodie) and piophilid flies (Sabrina), joining grad students Amélie Grégoire Taillefer, Anna Solecki and Heather Cumming in keeping research and training active here in the museum as we roll into 2014.

Good research needs to be disseminated to the scientific community and we had a productive year in publications, with four refereed papers covering a range of topics from the taxonomy of chloropid flies (Wheeler & Solecki 2013), to fungus gnat phylogeny (Borkent & Wheeler 2013), to insects in restoration ecology (Grégoire Taillefer & Wheeler 2013), and the impacts of climate change on high arctic parasitoid wasps (Timms et al. 2013). I like to think that the diversity of these papers reinforces the close relationship between taxonomy and ecology, between fundamental and applied research. Of course, the more opportunities we have to forge those links across subdisciplines, the better.

We also had our usual presence at conferences this year. Face to face interactions at meetings are another great way to present research results, interact with colleagues, and find out what’s going on in research. I presented an overview of our work on arctic Diptera at the Eastern Branch meeting of the Entomological Society of America in Lancaster, Pennsylvania back in March, and a poster (co-authored with grad students Meagan Blair and Anna Solecki) on phenotypic changes in arctic flies at the Ecological Society of America conference in Minneapolis in August. Our big conference this year was the 150th meeting of the Entomological Society of Canada in Guelph, Ontario in the fall. Heather, Anna and I gave talks; Christine, Amélie, Élodie and Sabrina all presented posters; and Laura gave the prestigious ESC Heritage Lecture. In addition to conferences, I also visited Cornell University (in Ithaca, NY) and Prescott College (in Prescott, AZ) this fall to give seminars about our northern arthropod research.

We got some excellent and productive field work in this year as well. I continued to work on the diversity of northern flies, with a trip to the Yukon for the third year in a row, this time with Sabrina and Élodie along to experience the north and collect lots of great data. Meanwhile in the temperate zone, Amélie had a very successful first field season to her Ph.D., collecting flies in a range of wetlands in southern Quebec.

Checking the catch, Dempster Highway km 155, Yukon

Checking the catch, Dempster Highway km 155, Yukon

I tried to keep this blog active when I could. Some posts on the importance of natural history clearly struck a chord with readers, and were responsible for most of the visits to the blog this year. There is obviously a big and active community of people out there — professionals and amateurs, students and senior researchers, scientists and non-scientists — who “get it” when we talk about the critical importance of natural history. I have to confess, though, that I sometimes feel like I’m preaching to the choir. I hope we can find a way to get our message through the sometimes thick skulls of university administrators, hiring committees and granting committees. I also blogged about our field work in the Yukon (and the critical importance, at least to me, of getting out into the field), as well as new publications as they appeared. I’m hoping to keep up that trend this year.

I tried to spend as much time in the lab this year as I could, talking to my students, finding out about how research was going. Sometimes I feel like I’m doing well at that; sometimes I don’t. Maybe this coming year I’ll have even more time to spend interacting in the lab.

I spent some time on the microscope this year, looking at flies, doing my own research. That’s pretty important to me (even though, as a 21st Century Professor, I’m probably supposed to be writing grants and supervising research, not actually DOING it). To be honest though, if I couldn’t get that microscope time in and actually work on my own projects, I’d likely be looking for another career. It’s a sanity thing.

I had fun teaching this year, as I always do. I went to the deserts of Arizona and California in April and May with 20 fantastic students and 3 great colleagues to teach a three week field trip on Desert Ecology. I taught Insect Diversity this fall to a dozen keen and motivated students who made every class session a pleasure to be part of. And my annual Evolution and Phylogeny class in the winter gave me the opportunity to tell stories about the importance of evolution in science and society to a (more or less) captive audience of 95 first year students. Maybe I’ll see some of them in my lab down the road.

I found some time to work in my garden this summer, although never quite enough. I went to Colorado in August and hiked up to the tops of a bunch of mountains, although not quite enough. I discovered, on conference trips and fieldwork and hiking days, some fine new brew pubs and restaurants and diners, but I’m always looking for more.

Rocky Mountain. High. Colorado (photo by J. Mlynarek)

Rocky Mountain. High. Colorado (photo by J. Mlynarek)

There were some bad days in 2013, but a lot of good ones. I suppose that keeps the universe in symmetry. It’s still early days, but 2014 is looking pretty good.

Happy New Year to all the Lymanites who keep this stuff fun. And happy New Year to all our friends and colleagues out there scattered around the globe.

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A natural history tool box for the 21st Century

It’s the binoculars of our age” — Josh Tewksbury

My last two posts focused on topics that are apparently very different: the importance of basic natural history; and the power of DNA barcoding (the first went a lot more viral than the second, which, I suppose, validates my message that natural history matters). In this post, I’ll attempt to tie those two posts together and I’ll argue that, although the practice of Natural History looks very different in the 21st Century, its goals and relevance are pretty much the same today as they have always been.

Binoculars, butterfly net, pencil and paper, plant press — these are the stereotypical tools of the natural history trade. But like so many stereotypes, that’s mostly wrong. The 21st Century naturalist uses new tools for timeless questions.

Throughout history, naturalists have embraced new technology — the printing press, lithography, photography, binoculars, microscopes — so why should we now be frozen in time? Digital photography and the internet, for example, are two of the most powerful new tools available to naturalists. Why not use them? If we choose to record our observations by speaking into a digital recorder, or using Evernote on our smartphone, we’re not really much different than a Victorian naturalist scribbling in her notebook. There’s no fundamental difference between Charles Darwin collecting an insect in South America, eventually bringing it back to England, and getting it into the hands of a specialist in a museum for identification, and a 12 year-old girl photographing a dragonfly with a smartphone, immediately uploading the photo to iNaturalist or BugGuide, and having someone halfway around the world provide an online identification. Both of those interactions represent a connection between observation and expertise. Both represent the accumulation of new biodiversity information. In fact, the only real differences are the speed and the fact that the process is open to a vastly bigger community.

This was new technology once

This was new technology once

A richly-illustrated, on-line, interactive key can make the process of species identification much more pleasant than flipping through a printed dichotomous key that’s devoid of pictures. A Scanning Electron Microscope lets us see very small things more clearly than binoculars or a light microscope. And DNA sequencing is simply another tool that unlocks a set of characters that we couldn’t previously use for recognizing new species. Admittedly, cost can be a factor. Some of the new technology is out of the reach of amateurs and students (and even some research scientists on a tight budget!). But most of it isn’t. Most of natural history is still a very democratic pursuit. And in fact, I would argue that low cost digital photography and the mostly free internet have transformed the collection and sharing of natural history information. They have helped usher in a Natural History Spring, if you will.

I recognize, and strongly support, the need to interact with nature or practice natural history unencumbered by technology (if you’re going to spend the ENTIRE DAY outside interacting with the world through the filter of your electronics, then you’re missing out on such a huge part of the experience of natural history). But, having the technology available makes a lot of natural history easier, and in fact makes some natural history possible.

This is really just a magnifying glass

This is really just a magnifying glass

Want to hear some more thoughts on the pros (and cons) of new tools for the 21st Century naturalist? Check out some conversations about technology at the Natural Histories Project.

 

 

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