The flavours of loss: a tale of a moth

Loss comes in many forms. Sometimes loss is a sharp, sudden thing; sometimes it’s a slow, fading twilight, creeping in so slowly you don’t even notice when it gets there. This is a story about both those kinds of loss. It’s also a story about the naturalist son of an eccentric Englishman, about a Montreal businessman, about a mysterious little moth, and a homestead on the Canadian prairies that tied them all together.


Percy Criddle left England and came out to Canada in 1882 to start a new life. He settled on a piece of land west of Winnipeg, Manitoba with his wife Alice and children, and his mistress, Elise Vane, and her children (it’s complicated). They built a log house at first (replaced by a much bigger frame house several years later), barns, a tennis court, a golf course — all the things any farm needs. And he started raising a family that would help shape Canadian natural history in the 20th Century. The place they set up farming was called Aweme. It’s still called Aweme, even though there was never really anything else there except the Criddle-Vane homestead. It’s also one of the most famous insect collecting localities in Canada. Specimens from “Aweme” have found their way into the world’s great insect collections.

Norman Criddle (photo: R.D. Bird)

Norman Criddle (photo: R.D. Bird)

Norman Criddle was a boy when they came to Canada and he grew up on the homestead and spent his life outdoors. He was a naturalist in the old and honourable and generalist sense of the word. He wandered. He watched things. He wrote field notes. He sketched and painted. And he asked questions and collected data and studied the life around the homestead. By the time he was in his early 20s he was already a well-known naturalist, with connections and correspondents all over North America. The province of Manitoba hired him as an entomologist in 1912 and a couple of years later the family built him a lab on the farm so he could better do his research and host visiting entomologists.

In the summer of 1908, when he was still an amateur, Criddle collected three specimens of a moth that he couldn’t identify. The label says “Aweme” but in those days Criddle put “Aweme” on all the labels of specimens that he collected within several miles of the farm. So his specimens could have come from the pastures around the house, from little streams in the forests nearby, or from the big open sand dunes over at Spruce Woods, where glacial Lake Agassiz had left its footprint after all its water had drained away several thousand years before.

Henry Lyman (Lyman Museum Archives)

Henry Lyman (Lyman Museum Archives)

Criddle sent the moths to some collaborators and one of the specimens found its way to Henry Lyman, of Montreal. Lyman was also an amateur, but in very different circumstances than Criddle. Lyman’s family owned a very successful pharmaceutical business and that gave him the money and time to pursue his real passion — butterflies and moths. His collection was an impressive one, he was very well-known and active in the North American entomological community, and he had published many papers over the course of his long career as an amateur entomologist. He was a recognized expert on the noctuid moths, so he was the logical person to look at Criddle’s strange little moths.

The moths from Aweme caused Lyman some confusion at first, but he soon decided it was a new species, so he published a description of it in 1908 and called it Gortyna aweme. It’s now called Papaipema aweme, the Aweme Borer. The holotype specimen (that’s the single specimen, the “real entity” to which a species’ name is permanently attached) is deposited in the Lyman Entomological Museum here at McGill University. It’s in a small tray, in a tight wooden drawer, in a closed metal cabinet, just over my left shoulder here in my lab.

The original: Holotype of the Aweme Borer

The original: Holotype of the Aweme Borer


Norman Criddle collected three specimens of the Aweme Borer that summer of 1908. He never collected another. Between 1913 and 1936 three more specimens were collected, all around the Great Lakes: one near Grand Bend, Ontario on the shores of Lake Huron; one at Rochester, New York, south of Lake Ontario; and one on a boat near Beaver Island in northern Lake Michigan. And then nobody collected another until 2005, when John Morton, a lepidopterist who lives on Manitoulin Island, Ontario, and has been collecting there for decades, collected a specimen on his own property. I can only imagine how he felt when he realized what he had.

Seven specimens. That’s all we have of the Aweme Borer.

It was listed as an Endangered Species by the Government of Canada in 2006.


Henry Lyman died in 1914. He and his wife were on their way to England for their honeymoon. As their ship, The Empress of Ireland, was steaming out the St. Lawrence River, it collided with the Storstad, a Norwegian coal ship, in the dark and fog. More than 1000 people drowned when the Empress sank, including the Lymans.

Norman Criddle died in Manitoba in 1933. He was buried in the little family cemetery at the farm in Aweme. His gravestone reads “Norman Criddle – Naturalist – 1875–1933″. Whenever I go to Aweme I stop by the cemetery to visit. It’s a quiet little shady place, nestled under trees.

I’ve also visited the big farm house many times on past trips to Aweme. We’d go through the empty door frames and wander through the empty rooms with the peeling wallpaper. I’d regale my students with stories of how important this place to Canadian entomology. They’d very kindly try not to look bored. In recent years, with its historical importance recognized, the Criddle-Vane house got a new lease on life as renovation work started, evicting the barn swallows and pigeons and fixing the place up.

A few weeks ago, somebody, probably a bored and ignorant group of kids from the area, burned the house to the ground. It’s gone now. All that history reduced to rubble in one night. Because people can be incredibly stupid.

But what about the moth? Norman and Henry’s dull little moth may have outlived them all. The Aweme Borer might still be hanging on out there somewhere on the sandy glacial beaches in the middle of the continent. We don’t know. We don’t know how it lives or how it dies, where it lays its eggs, what the caterpillars eat.

We know that all seven adults were collected in August. And we know that they were mostly collected in places that are either sandy dune-like habitats, or open oak prairies. Until John Morton collected his specimen in 2005, nobody had seen an Aweme Borer for more than 70 years. And, as far as we know, nobody has seen one since.

The Aweme Borer is not an iconic endangered species, but maybe it should be, if for no other reason than that its eventual loss might look exactly the same as the loss of so many other species — not a sharp, sudden thing that everybody notices, but that slow, fading twilight . . .


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A moth, a fern, a feline: a species name story

As taxonomists, we give names to new species that we describe. The name is entirely up to us (within a few limits imposed by rules of grammar, and a recommendation that they not be offensive). Sometimes it’s easy to figure out the source of the species name; sometimes it’s not. Authors of new species names generally explain the derivation of the name when they first publish it, but that hasn’t always been the case. And that can create confusion, especially when the origin of a species name looks pretty obvious, but actually means something completely different.

Henry Bird was an entomologist from Rye, New York. In 1907 he described a new species of noctuid moth that lives in bracken fern. He called the moth Papaipema pterisii. Makes sense — at that time, bracken fern was in the genus Pteris, and lots of species are named after the thing they live in, live on, or eat (In this case, the Latin ending “-ii” is a bit wonky, but we’ll get to that in a bit).

Even though Bird wrote a fairly long description of the taxonomy and natural history of this moth, he didn’t explain the source of the species name. It wasn’t much of an issue in the case of Papaipema pterisii; the name was a bit of a no-brainer and it would be reasonable to assume that he named the moth after the fern. Some later authors have actually given that explanation for the name.

Bird's 1907 paper in Canadian Entomologist

Bird’s 1907 paper in Canadian Entomologist

As it turns out, assumptions aren’t always right.

I was going through some old archival documents here in the museum yesterday — a box of notes, letters and manuscripts from Henry Lyman, the founder of the museum, and a well-known Lepidoptera taxonomist. One of Lyman’s oldest friends and colleagues was the Rev. Charles Bethune who, over a long and productive career in entomology, served as the Editor of our national entomological journal: The Canadian Entomologist. I found a letter in the box, written by Henry Bird to Bethune in 1907. Bethune apparently passed it on to Lyman, who was also on the editorial board of the journal.

Henry Bird fesses up (Lyman Museum archives)

Henry Bird fesses up (Lyman Museum archives)

Bird and Bethune were having one of those Editor/Author discussions about a few small details in the manuscript. Bethune and Lyman apparently weren’t keen on the spelling and formation of the species name of P. pterisii. Bird’s explanation was probably unexpected. And it’s fairly priceless.

Dear Dr. Bethune:-

I was glad to hear from you, as always, and note your remarks concerning pterisii. Perhaps it would have been better I not used this term, but those who infer — and I admit it is natural — that the species is named after the food plant are in error [. . . ]

Now Pterisius happens to be a pet cat that accompanies me on my frequent trips to a nearby clump of Pteris and who is ever ready to spend as many hours there is search of mice, as I care to do on my knees observing the Papaiema larva. It was due to him that I first discovered this little patch was infested with this species [. . . ] I am less in favor than formerly of naming species after a foodplant, for in different localities, they are apt to have alternative ones, and it gives the impression that a particular foodplant is responsible in a certain way for a certain species, or that it never occurs in anything else.

Henry Lyman published a short note in The Canadian Entomologist the following year (1908) in which he talked about Bird’s new species, among other Papaipema-related things. Bird’s cat explanation finally made its way into print. Lyman still wasn’t impressed.

I don’t know if Bird was joking about naming the moth after his cat. I guess it doesn’t really matter.

A hundred years before Facebook, Henry Bird had it figured out: it’s all about the cats.


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100 days of Twitter: reflections of a somewhat senior rookie

In early March I changed my mind and joined Twitter. I resisted climbing onto the wings of the little blue bird for a long time. I’m not inherently opposed to social media or anything like that. In fact, I’m convinced it’s a very powerful tool for scientists and educators. But despite my on-line presence in various other media, I was not an early adopter of Twitter.

I am, however, fond of being an outlier, so after repeated exposure to statements such as “Twitter users are mostly young”, “Scientists on Twitter are mostly students”, and “Prof don’t tweet”, I was bound to end up with an @ in front of my name (Just for the record, I think all three of those generalizations have got to go).

After my 100 day break-in period, I thought I’d toss out some impressions from a Twitter noob who is, apparently, older than the great majority of  users (if we are to believe survey data here or here) (that’s me in the “over 50″ bar)

The hesitation of the mid-career researcher

I initially stayed away from Twitter for a couple of reasons. The main one had to do with the way my brain works. Somewhere in the chemical soup and frayed wiring of my head, there are wonky connections that make me very susceptible to distraction. I’m easily knocked off course, especially when I am trying to juggle many responsibilities, which is, ummm, always.  Focus is not my friend, and it’s gotten worse with time. Oh, and I’m a bit obsessive too. So I was worried about the impact that checking in on Twitter ALL THE TIME would have on my tenuous time management abilities. Effusive testimonials from others that “Twitter makes me MORE efficient!” aside, I was concerned. My To Do list is terrifying.

The second reason was, well, silly. Let’s just say it’s embodied in the “If I wasn’t on Twitter I’d never know there were Nobel Prizes!” and “before Twitter I had no idea there were insects!” school of breathless hyperbole.

100 days: A Twitter report card

3+ months in, it’s an unreserved thumbs-up. I’ve gotten a lot out of my time on Twitter. It may help that I joined just in time for Taxonomist Appreciation Day, and was part of the waves of discussion about Natural History’s place in science and society, and the “Minteer Affair“. There was instant connection with a big community of like-minded people. People follow me, I follow people. There have been no tears, as far as I know. The positive outcomes for me have been both tangible and intangible (in other words, I have data about the benefits of Twitter, and I have anecdotes)

The tangibles: I give Twitter credit for getting me involved as an author on a community-wide response to an anti-collecting opinion piece published in Science. Within hours of the original diatribe appearing, the discussion was swirling on Twitter and it galvanized the community response in a way that email could not. I’ve also been tipped off to some great new data for a paper I’ve been working on for a few years about a weird fly that has weird natural history (tip of the hat to The Bug Chicks!). And, of course, exposure on Twitter has increased traffic on my blog (not that this blog has been terribly active since March).

The intangibles: I’ve connected with new colleagues, both in my own research area and beyond. We don’t often have a lot of conversations, but I can follow along with the day to day stories of research on insects, plants, marine organisms, vertebrates, parasites and more, not to mention finding out about new things in fields beyond biology. I’ve also been able to connect with some very keen amateurs — people who keep natural history alive and vibrant, and who contribute very useful data to taxonomy and ecology. I find out about new research pretty quickly, from a variety of sources. Yeah, I can, and do, all of these things through other media anyway, but Twitter adds another dimension, and one that often works faster.

The downside: I have also learned from Twitter that: 1. Academia is a cesspool of hate and bitterness; 2. That everything about the way I teach is absolutely, completely, utterly wrong; and 3. That every single journal that is not Open Access is scummy and sleazy. I guess my responses to those three epiphanies are: 1) whatever; 2) whatever; 3) whatever. It’s social media, and social media consensus can be a funny and fickle thing. Your mileage may vary. So, really, in the grand scheme of things, that’s not much of a downside.

My Twitter survival strategy

I think I’ve figured out how to customize my Twitter Experience to fit my brain. Here’s what worked for me, and why:

Limit my time. I need to be pretty harsh about how many times I check in during the day, and how long I spend on Twitter. I try to limit myself to a few minutes at a stretch, and only check in a few times in any day. I’ve forbidden myself from clicking through to more than 3-4 links in any Twitter session, so I have to choose carefully. I’m sure I miss a lot of interesting things. So be it. I have a job to do outside the internet.

Limit my focus. I get my news and sports from the mainstream media, so I can scroll past the general things in my feed. I don’t follow feeds that are too broad or peripheral. I tend to treat Twitter as a science/nature/art buffet rather than a portal to everything.

Limit my follows. I have to be careful and merciless here. If I follow too many people, then the River Twitter flows by at too fast a pace. What if I miss something?!? I’m twitchy that way, and there would be much scrolling trying to catch up. So I tend to be pretty strict with myself about who I follow. I’ll check out the signal to noise ratio on a feed before I follow an account. It’s early days, but so far, I think I’ve got a great diversity of people and institutions so I can get a good mix of new science, great natural history, ruminations on education and science communication, and my daily dose of giggles.

If I had a wish

I’d like to see more professors and researchers on Twitter (although I acknowledge that not everybody wants to be here. I respect that. Twittershaming of non-adopters is dumb, but so is slagging Twitter when you haven’t tried it).

I’d like to see more amateur naturalists sharing great observations with professional biologists.

I’d like to see more scientists explaining and publicizing their work. Lots of us do great stuff, and it’s important and relevant. We need to be better at telling the rest of the world why that is. Twitter only gives you tiny sound bites to get that message across, but it’s good practice to try anyway. After all, many politicians and policy makers probably only have a 140 character attention span anyway . . .


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On biodiversity, museums and breadth

May 22 is the International Day for Biological Diversity (IDBD from here on in). Many people will take the opportunity today to give some thought to the richness and diversity of life on earth, as well as how much we still have to learn about it. But for those of us who work and play in biodiversity science, everyday is IDBD (in that sense, I guess it’s a little like Valentine’s Day).

Down here in the museum, I’m reminded every day of the enormous number of insect species, their great variability, their role in ecosystems, and the impact that a changing world has on everything from their genes to their community structure. I’m also reminded of just how many undescribed species of flies are sitting here waiting for some attention from me.

Natural history museums are the single easiest place to connect with biodiversity. Whether insects, plants, fossils, preserved vertebrate specimens, macrofungi, or any of the many other branches of the tree of life, a walk through the displays or the collections is a reality check on just how much wonderful diversity there is, and how much remains unknown and undescribed. Of course, this is just one of the many roles that natural history museums, and their invaluable specimens, play in research, management and education.

There’s been a lot of discussion in recent weeks about the importance of specimens. That discussion was mostly started by a paper published in Science that condemned the practice of scientific collecting as a factor in extinction. The authors of the paper just don’t seem to understand what museums or biodiversity scientists do. Unfortunately, this paper, despite its weak and misinformed arguments, will probably get considerable mileage among a community of people who condemn collecting, collections and museums as cruel and archaic; people who generally do not bother to find out how collecting actually works, and people who apparently fail to consider that their daily actions probably kill far more organisms than scientists (I’m looking at you, automobile grill). And that’s a shame.

For those who like a little balance in their science, some of us (well, 123 of us) have just published a response in Science to the original paper. And it’s a happy coincidence that it’s coming out on IDBD. It’s a short piece and I’m proud to be part of it.

I’m proud of it because I think it makes a compelling argument about the importance of specimens and collections to address a wide range of research questions.

I’m proud of it because it helps, I hope, to dispel silly misconceptions about scientists and collectors perpetuated by the authors of the original Science paper.

Mostly I’m proud of it because of the sheer number and diversity of authors who jumped into this undertaking within days of the original publication. The authors on this response represent a great breadth of excellent biodiversity scientists who span geographic regions, large and small institutions, and taxa of interest. But more than that, it’s a group of people who span generations. Some of my co-authors on this paper are people who I have read and admired since I was an undergraduate student, reading about their work in phylogenetics, biogeography and more. But at the other end of the scale, one of my co-authors was an undergraduate student in my classes here at McGill who sat through my lectures in phylogenetics, biogeography and more. We’re a pretty diverse bunch, with a pretty diverse range of perspectives and interests. But there are some important things that we all have in common:

We understand the critical importance of strong and vibrant natural history collections.

We understand that preserved specimens are a priceless data set for research.

We understand that museums matter.

Happy IDBD everybody.


Rocha, LA, A Aleixo, G Allen, F Almeda, CC Baldwin, MVL Barclay, JM Bates, AM Bauer, F Benzoni, CM Berns, ML Berumen, DC Blackburn, S Blum, F Bolaños, RCK Bowie, R Britz, RM Brown, CD Cadena, K Carpenter, LM Ceríaco, P Chakrabarty, G Chaves, JH Choat, KD Clements, BB Collette, A Collins, J Coyne, J Cracraft, T Daniel, MR de Carvalho, K de Queiroz, F Di Dario, R Drewes, JP Dumbacher, A Engilis Jr, MV Erdmann, W Eschmeyer, CR Feldman, BL Fisher, J Fjeldså, PW Fritsch, J Fuchs, A Getahun, A Gill, M Gomon, T Gosliner, GR Graves, CE Griswold, R Guralnick, K Hartel, KM Helgen, H Ho, DT Iskandar, T Iwamoto, Z Jaafar, HF James, D Johnson, D Kavanaugh, N Knowlton, E Lacey, HK Larson, P Last, JM Leis, H Lessios, J Liebherr, M Lowman, DL Mahler, V Mamonekene, K Matsuura, GC Mayer, H Mays Jr, J McCosker, RW McDiarmid, J McGuire, MJ Miller, R Mooi, RD Mooi, C Moritz, P Myers, MW Nachman, RA Nussbaum, D Ó Foighil, LR Parenti, JF Parham, E Paul, G Paulay, J Pérez-Emán, A Perez-Matus, S Poe, J Pogonoski, DL Rabosky, JE Randall, JD Reimer, DR Robertson, M-O Rödel, MT Rodrigues, P Roopnarine, L Rüber, MJ Ryan, F Sheldon, G Shinohara, A Short, WB Simison, WF Smith-Vaniz, VG Springer, M Stiassny, JG Tello, CW Thompson, T Trnski, P Tucker, T Valqui, M Vecchione, E Verheyen, PC Wainwright, TA Wheeler, WT White, K Will, JT Williams, G Williams, EO Wilson, K Winker, R Winterbottom, CC Witt. 2014. Specimen collection: an essential tool. Science 344: 814–815.


Posted in Science Culture | Tagged , | 1 Comment

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 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.


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


Posted in Science Culture, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 25 Comments

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.


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


Posted in Research News, Science Culture | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

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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