Suburban biodiversity: surprising flies in the neighborhood

Christine Barrie, a grad student in the lab, found a fly she couldn’t put a name on. Other students in the lab had trouble too. So did I. It looked familiar, but it didn’t key out in the standard North American keys.

I eventually realized I’d seen it before, but not around here. It looked a lot like a European species we have in the museum collection. And that’s exactly what it turned out to be. Armed with that possibility, Christine pulled out those European specimens, and some European species keys, and she put a name on the fly. The name was Cryptonevra diadema, in the family Chloropidae. And then we wrote a paper, which was published recently in the journal Zootaxa.

The paper is the first report of the chloropid fly genus Cryptonevra in North America. It’s not terribly surprising to find a species or even genus of insects in North America for the first time. Humans move things around and species are introduced pretty regularly. We also have a surprisingly incomplete knowledge of the arthropod diversity of Canada. Tens of thousands of species of insects live here, and there are only so many taxonomic specialists who have the training and experience to identify many of them. But there are a couple of things about this discovery that make it a little bit more interesting.

Commuter biodiversity

Here’s where Christine collected the first documented North American specimens of Cryptonevra diadema. A place called Terra Cotta Park. Looks nicely wild, doesn’t it?

Terra Cotta

Let’s zoom out a little bit.  So you can see the houses. And the sports fields. And the roads.

Pointe Claire

Let’s zoom out a little more. The little green square by the yellow arrow is Terra Cotta Park. The big gray mass is Montreal. It’s a really big city.

montreal view

The lesson here is that you don’t have to travel by plane/boat/helicopter/elephant to discover new things in unexpected places. You can take the bus. Or ride your bike. You can be a naturalist, a taxonomist, an explorer, right in the city. New things are waiting to be found everywhere.

The things that feed on reed

So what does Cryptonevra diadema do in Terra Cotta Park, on the fringes of Montreal? One of the great things abut having a name for this fly is that we can look up other published references to the species. Its habits are better known in Europe, where we know it feeds in the stems of Common Reed (Phragmites australis), because many other entomologists have spent time out in the field watching it, collecting it, rearing it, and documenting its natural history. In fact, it feeds inside galls on Phragmites made by other chloropid flies in the genus Lipara (which, incidentally, Christine also collected for the first time in Canada. At Terra Cotta Park). And after Christine identified the first single specimen of Cryptonevra (collected in 2011) she went back to the park, to a big patch of Phragmites, and collected several more specimens.

There’s a large assemblage of flies, many of which are in the family Chloropidae, associated with Phragmites in Europe. But even though Phragmites is very abundant in eastern North America, most of its flies haven’t made the trip from Europe. In recent years we’ve discovered a few of them gaining a foothold (tarsus-hold?) in eastern North America, and Cryptonevra seems to be the latest arrival. We’re less certain about whether it’s a recent introduction, or whether it’s been here for much longer and we just discovered it. Why?

Because we don’t always pay enough attention to the scientific value of going to the park and looking around.


Barrie, C.L. & Wheeler, T.A. 2015. Assembly of a Phragmites-associated Chloropidae (Diptera) fauna in North America: the Palearctic genus Cryptonevra Lioy in the Nearctic, and the genus Lipara Meigen in Canada. Zootaxa 4012: 198–200.

Posted in Research News | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Fading walls: Communication, conferences, and sharing science

The front walls of the convention center are mostly glass, but you’ll need your name badge to get beyond the lobby.

I was at the 100th annual conference of the Ecological Society of America in Baltimore last week. I saw some great science, I reconnected with some friends, and I spent some time thinking about communication in science. This post is about that last part.

Much has changed in the 30 years since I went to my first science conference. Although there’s still a big component of “scientists in dimly-lit rooms talking at other scientists” at many traditional scientific conferences, the walls are coming down (or at least getting transparent) in some ways, and that’s a really good thing. As I spend more time engaging with other scientists and non-scientists through various and assorted forms of social media, I can’t help noticing changes in the way we communicate science and share science. And conferences are a really interesting place to see those changes happening, especially within the scientific community.

I think there’s more value placed on story than there used to be. Great presenters don’t just dispense the data and results and implications of their research; they invite the audience into the research, weaving a story of why they asked that question, and what it all means. The best science ventures into art and literature and more, and comes out stronger. And that’s a great thing. Just because your DNA lab has to be sterile, that doesn’t mean your talk has to be. The talks and posters I remember most are usually those done by a student or post-doc who instantly helps me feel a connection to a study system or question or place I know nothing about. That’s scientific communication!

My own interests are strongly rooted in natural history, so I’ve been really delighted to see the prominence of natural history at ESA in recent years. One of the benefits of that for communication is that natural history presents such a strong opportunity to connect institutional research with public interest in nature; to connect professionals with amateurs; and to connect science with art. Strengthening these connections across traditionally separate domains is a great way to increase the understanding and appreciation of science outside the walls of ScienceWorld. It was fantastic to see people stopping by booths in the big exhibit hall to sketch specimens at the Natural History Section booth, or sketch their research at the Science Communications Section booth.

Another change that’s increasingly obvious wandering through the exhibit hall is the way we publish and share science. A mainstay of conference exhibit halls are the displays from publishers, both the big publishing houses and university presses. As a book junkie, I love it. But in among the usual Wiley and Springer and Cornell University Press booths, other pathways to publishing and sharing science are gaining ground too. Big data repositories make data shareable, verifiable and accessible; open access journals make the results of our science accessible to people; and changes in the way peer review works may just streamline one of the most annoying and capricious parts of the publishing process.

Although there were a few thousand ecologists at the conference, far more people interested in the field and the presentations weren’t. But that’s becoming less of a divide too. Speakers are increasingly posting their posters, slides, code, or data on figshare, github, or other websites. You no longer have to be IN the room to see them. The rise of Twitter has led a huge shift in the way science is shared beyond the meeting room too. The ESA meeting in 2014 was my first conference after joining Twitter and I posted some thoughts after that meeting about the positive side of Twitter at meetings. So I arrived at ESA 2015 ready to connect or reconnect with some Twitter people, and share my 140-character perspectives on the meeting (at least the parts I saw) with people beyond the room.

Then things got a bit peculiar.

ESA has a Code of Conduct for conferences. This is important and I wish every conference did this. The Code of Conduct, with some additional conference-specific pieces, was printed in the conference program. Two pieces were related, directly or indirectly, to live-tweeting presentations: don’t photograph slides or posters without author’s permission; and “we ask that attendees posting to social media avoid posting detailed information from presentations”. Both these seem reasonable, and are in line with last year’s policy. Most people would, I think, interpret that to mean: tweet about the speaker’s topic, general question, coolness of study, etc. but not actual data. And ask before you take pictures. And that’s what most conference live tweets do anyway.

But then on the eve of the meeting, when many people had already arrived in Baltimore, ESA reminded attendees, via Twitter, that any live-tweeting without the prior permission of the author was prohibited. That’s pretty different from the printed policy, and that caused a whole lot of confusion. Essentially, it put the onus on presenters (many of whom aren’t active on Twitter and thus would be unaware of this) to opt in to people in the audience live-tweeting their work, instead of the much more usual, and logical, opportunity for presenters to opt out of people live tweeting sensitive or eminently scoopable results (and that is a whole other discussion for other blogs and other posts). So, basically, by tweeting out (repeatedly) this new restriction on live-tweeting presentations early in the meeting, ESA was taking a step backward from their fairly open social media policy from previous years. Confusion ensued. Those of us used to live-tweeting talks were not sure what we should be doing (follow the printed program? do what we’ve always done? obey the new revised/restrictive tweet rules?). Ecologists who weren’t at the meeting were wondering why the usual stream of live tweets of presentations wasn’t coming as fast and furious as in past years; and there was little explanation or justification from ESA about why the opt-out policy had been replaced by an opt-in policy.

That’s a problem.

That’s a problem because the branch of science, and one of the biggest conferences in the field, that deals with some of the most pressing problems we face—climate change, conservation, urbanization, food security, sustainability, water quality, and more—should be making our research and its implications more accessible, not less accessible. The underlying principles of open science, and of good science communication are all about sharing. And as communities of scientists, we should be doing more, not less, to make sure the great science gets out. As double-edged a sword as social media can be, it’s one of the most powerful tools we, as scientists, have to explain to the big wide world what we do and why it matters.

I hope that, when we all turn up at ESA 2016 to share our excitement about what we’ve been doing for the past year, there’ll be a clear and open policy in place that recognizes the enormous overall benefit of open science, open communication, and the value of sharing.

Because sharing isn’t just nice; it’s absolutely critical.


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Learning to sharpen your scythe

My grandfather used a scythe to cut hay. Yes. A scythe: big blade, long curved handle, Grim Reaper scythe. I remember watching the mathematical, poetical way he’d arc the blade, pivoting from the waist, mowing down a strip, stepping forward on the backswing, mowing down another strip. He’d pick up the scythe stone every now and then and swish it along the blade to sharpen the edge. I watched him carefully. I knew these were critical skills I would need later in life. That, and things like milking a cow (by hand), throwing a cast net to catch capelin when they rolled in on the beach, cleaning a trout, and escaping from quicksand (OK, I got that last one from watching movies). Of course, my grandfather was no Luddite; he only used the scythe for small patches of cutting. When he had to cut one of the big hay fields, he’d harness up the mowing machine to the horse and clatter around the field that way, like any sane person would.

Well, as it turned out, I haven’t used most of those skills. I picked up other critical skills along the way, as I bounced through life. Some I’ve retained; others are long gone. As my job descriptions changed, the skills I needed had to change.

I was teaching a field course in the spring. One night I was sitting out at the campsite with a few of the students and the talk drifted into science as a career, as it sometimes does. One of them asked me what I thought what makes a good scientist.  I had to think about that a bit. I decided not to open with either “learn to use a scythe efficiently” or “learn to code”.

The problem with tool-based advice is that the tools change. The technology I used for almost every component of my M.Sc. thesis (1985–1987 A.D.) — from the computers, to the software, to the way we assembled plates of illustrations, to the publication process — now seems a bit laughable. It’s the stuff of “uphill both ways, in the snow, and we went home for lunch!” stories. Its been entertaining, enlightening, awe-inspiring, and sometimes a little bit career-altering to sit on the big beach of science and watch the waves come and go. We used to do computer things with command line instructions. And then we didn’t have to and we were happy. And now we code again and we are happy. Excel was amazing. And then it wasn’t. Windows was a game-changer. And then it wasn’t. And the same can be said for many of the other tools we use to build science.

So faced with that realization, I decided to fall back on the bigger picture in my conversation with the students. Not just the things that make doing science easier, or more efficient, or more powerful at a particular point in time. But the things that make science, well, good, at any time. I came up with some of these things on the spot, out there in the desert night; some came to me later, but I think they’re all part of a pretty useful package: Be kind, fair, and inclusive. Respect people, but don’t idolize people. Listen — stop talking and just listen. Collaborate at least as much as you compete. Never try to make yourself look good by making someone else look bad. Learn some things from fields outside your own; you’d be surprised how handy that can be. Be willing to admit that you don’t know, and then try to find out. Be willing to admit that you were wrong, and then fix it. Share what you know, not just with other scientists, but with non-scientists too. And don’t pass up the opportunity to learn new tools, new skills, new approaches as the game of science changes.

Because really, in the grand scheme of things, the tools and techniques of science don’t matter as much as building a community where good people come up with good ideas and good questions.

The important question isn’t “What kind of scythe are you using?”; the important question is “Who needs some hay?”

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What makes a good collecting trip good?

“Have a good trip! How’s the trip going? How was the trip?” These are things people say to me before, during, and after fieldwork trips. I go into the field to collect insects. I do this because that’s where a lot of my research data comes from. So, over the past couple of days, as I wind up my sixth summer of arctic fieldwork, I’ve been thinking that all my answers to all those questions are always “good” (or some superlative flavour of good, usually something along the lines of “great” or “11 out of 10” or “I’m not coming home”).

But yesterday as I was driving south from Dawson City bound for Whitehorse, I was thinking about what does make a good collecting trip good, and I realized that, for me at least, it’s the conjunction of many little pieces. So here, without further preamble or disclaimer, and in no particular order except for the first one, is my list of some of the things that make a good collecting trip good for me.

• We collect surprising insects in places I didn’t expect to find them (good collecting is, after all, the main purpose of doing this fieldwork in the first place!)

• Replicated samples are successfully gathered in numbers suitable for the appropriate analyses.

• None of the collecting nets or traps are destroyed by bears, muskox, dogs, ravens, rose bushes, falling trees, off-road vehicles, or other non-demonic intrusions (except where we have brought extras of the low-cost ones, thereby making me seem like a brilliant planner).

• Neither the first-aid kit nor the bear spray are used.

• On the Opening Grocery Expedition, we buy enough food, but not too much food. And everybody has a say in, and agrees on, what food we buy.

• The food is good and healthy and fresh and never so repetitive that rumours of mutiny are heard.

• The music we bring is good and varied and never so repetitive that rumours of mutiny are heard.

• Everybody works hard, but not so hard that we miss out on chances to explore natural history, cultural history and the sheer joy of being in a special place.

• All the field guides we bring are used, but we don’t regret not having any that we didn’t bring.

• I learn some new things about the natural history or cultural history of the place that I didn’t know before the trip.

• We meet interesting people along the road. All sorts of people. Some are curious about our work and want to know more.

• Nobody bickers with anybody else. But if we do, it is defused quickly, then we’re all OK again.

• Nobody is the Big Boss, and nobody is an underling. We’re a Team.

• There is ice cream.

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Lines on a map. Dots on a map.

I’m crossing some lines in the Yukon. I’m searching for dots.

Several lines drawn on maps define the Yukon for me. There’s a straight line across the bottom of the Territory that marks 60° north latitude. To many Canadians, “north” is what’s beyond that line. It’s a line mostly drawn by politicians and mapmakers, but it’s also a line that defines the way people view part of this giant country. In Canada, “North” is a thing.

Farther north, up at latitude 66°33’ there’s another straight line – the Arctic Circle. That one goes right around the planet. It’s a line drawn by astronomy. At that line, the sun doesn’t set on the longest day of the year, and it doesn’t rise on the shortest.

Between those two, there’s a squiggly, fuzzy line running more or less east and west. It’s the tree line. It’s a line drawn by biology and geology and climate. South of tree line there’s forest; north of tree line there’s tundra. But like most things biological, it’s not quite that simple. When you zoom in far beyond the level of that giant map of Canada on the wall, things get messy because tree line is spotty and broken and moving, depending on the interactions of living and non-living things. Patches of trees come and go up here. It’s like they didn’t even bother to look at the map at all.

Windy Pass, Yukon. Up on the edge of Beringia.

Windy Pass, Yukon. Up on the edge of Beringia (photo: T.A. Wheeler).

The fourth line, the one I’m tracing instead of crossing, is the Dempster Highway – a 732 kilometer, two-lane (more or less) ribbon of gravel running north (more or less) from near Dawson City, up through forests and tundra and then some more forest and then tundra, across the Arctic Circle, across northern rivers, to Inuvik, up on the huge Mackenzie Delta near the Arctic Ocean. It’s a line drawn by road-building crews and the native guides who showed them the best route. It follows old winding paths and carves new straight lines. In some of the straight stretches, the road is also an airstrip (don’t stop there). It winds along rivers, over low mountain passes, and rides on top of a thick bed of rock and gravel laid down over the permafrost. I drive up and down this road looking for dots to add to a map.

Dempster Highway, near North Fork Pass. The road to discovery (photo: T.A. Wheeler).

Dempster Highway, near North Fork Pass. The road to discovery (photo: T.A. Wheeler).

I’ve been collecting insects along the Dempster almost every year since 2011. Each year our research questions are a little different, our field crews are a little different, our focus is a little different. This year I’m mostly focused on collecting data for a long-standing project in taxonomy (where the root question is “what is this thing?”) and faunistics (where the root question is “what things are here?”). My main group of interest is the fly family Chloropidae. It’s a diverse and abundant group of little flies that live everywhere from tropical rainforest canopies to deserts to urban backyards to the high arctic tundra. And they play a huge range of ecological roles, from herbivores to scavengers to predators to parasites to pollinators. On my first visit to the southern Yukon in 1997 I started collecting chloropids and I soon noticed how many species there were, how widespread they were, and how many seemed to be undescribed species, or species unrecorded in North America.

That last part – unrecorded in North America – is especially relevant to research in the Yukon, because this part of the continent is a crossroads for species. Many widespread North American species range all the way up through Yukon and Alaska, but this place is also special because when most of Canada was covered with ice for much of the past two million years, a big chunk of Yukon and Alaska were ice-free, part of the great Beringian refugium. Beringia was a gateway for many species to walk or crawl or swim or be carried by wind or animals or water from eastern Russia into North America. And many of them stayed up here. So we know of several species that are widespread through Eurasia but only found in North America way up here in the northwest corner. Because of the glaciers. But, the species we know are only a small fraction of the species that are probably up here, especially in poorly studied groups like insects and other small invertebrates.

So I’ve been travelling the Yukon, stopping along the accessible routes to put out insect traps and sweep the vegetation for flies. And in most places I collect, there are chloropid flies. When I get back to the lab and prepare the specimens, I can identify the species, find out whether they are named or not, and I can put another little dot on a big map that says “this species lives here”. My dots come from my own collecting in the field, but also from samples collected by colleagues, and also from the rich holdings of older specimens housed in natural history museums. All the dots together give us a picture of the diversity of this one family of small flies up here, and when I’m done I’ll have produced a piece of work called The Chloropidae of The Yukon (or something like that; still a working title), that will help us understand a little piece of the biodiversity of this place a little better. And my dots can be combined with other dots of other groups drawn by other researchers, to help draw a very detailed pattern of dots.

So who cares? What’s the use of those dots? Well, those dots drawn by taxonomy and faunistic work are the basis for a whole suite of questions in ecology and biodiversity and conservation. With enough dots, we can define the structure of ecological communities, we can map them onto biotic and abiotic gradients, we can monitor the change in what, and where, those dots are over short time periods (as habitats change) or over long time periods (as the biota of the north has changed during and after ice ages).

And who doesn’t like connecting the dots?

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Why the Yukon? My love of northern entomology

I’m north of 60° again. Back in Whitehorse, Yukon for the fourth time in five years, and getting ready to head north. Beyond Dawson City, beyond the trees, up the Dempster Highway to the tundra. I’m going to collect insects. Again. Many of my entomological colleagues and friends head for the tropics when they want to collect insects, especially unknown new species. I can see the appeal — I’ve collected in Jamaica, in Costa Rica, in the Australian tropics. I’ve found wonderful new things in all those places. So why do I keep coming back to places with more mosquitoes than trees? to places with permanently frozen ground? to places where predictions of latitudinal species diversity gradients say “meh, why bother?”

You are here. And great things await around the bend (photo: T.A. Wheeler)

You are here. And great things await around the bend (photo: T.A. Wheeler)

Because this is a magical place to do entomology. There are tons of discoveries to be made here whether you’re a taxonomist (which I am), an ecologist (which I am), or if you have an interest in the long-term history of the continent (which I do).

A big chunk of the Yukon Territory was part of what’s now known as Beringia — a vast swath of northeastern Russia, Alaska, Yukon, and dry seabed connecting them — that was mostly ice-free when the rest of Canada was covered by Pleistocene glaciers through long spans of the past two million years. Beringia was named by Eric Hultén, a Swedish botanist who recognized the unique composition of the plants of the region. But there’s much more that’s unique about Beringia than just plants. This region supported enormous populations of giant ice age mammals: mammoths and mastodons, ground sloths and giant beavers, short-faced bears, scimitar cats, horses, camels, saiga antelopes, and more. The bones of these creatures wash out of riverbanks all through the region. And they help us reconstruct the history of this place. Other evidence from the past tells us that the first Americans walked into North America through Beringia, and there are signs of their hunting on the old bones, and their stories talk about the giant mammals of the past.

There were insects in Beringia, just as there are insects everywhere, but there has been surprisingly little research done on many groups of Beringian insects. But they’re just as much part of the story of this place as mammoths and sedges and shrubs. And unlike the Pleistocene megafauna, many of the Beringian insects are probably still alive. That means that the footprint of glaciation is still there in their genes, in the distribution of species in this part of the continent, and in the structure of their communities. There’s a rich source of taxonomic, ecological, and genetic questions up here.

Taxonomic questions: Some groups of Beringian insects have been well-documented. There’s been a long interest in fossil beetles here, for example. And some excellent work has been done on butterflies and moths over the years. The Biological Survey of Canada published “Insects of The Yukon” in 1997, with chapters covering many families of Yukon insects and arachnids. But that 1000-page book still only scratched the surface. In our ongoing research on Yukon flies since 1997 we’ve discovered many new species up here. People are often surprised at how few of Canada’s insects are known or named, but it’s simple math: this is a huge and diverse country, with many thousands of insect species, and not nearly enough people describing our own native fauna. I don’t need to go to the tropical rainforest to discover new species; I just have to drive up the Klondike Highway or Dempster Highway and pull off the side of the road. One of the main objectives of my fieldwork here in the Yukon this summer is to collect specimens of some fly families in which we know there are several undescribed species. The additional material I hope to collect will help us document size and colour variation in these species, as well as filling out our knowledge of their geographic distribution. It’s important to put names on these new species because this species diversity is the foundation for other questions about northern biodiversity.

Ecological questions. Beringia was not only ice-free, there was also a surprsing range of habitat types here, from dry tundra to wetlands to shrubland to extensive grasslands. We know this from ancient plant remains — pollen and plant fossils from ice age deposits. And a wide variety of habitats means that more insect species can be supported because they often have a strong preference for particular habitats. In our fieldwork here the past few years we’ve been surprised to see how many more species in a range of fly families live in Beringia, compared to other northern regions that were glaciated. Research by several students in our lab: Stéphanie Boucher, Meagan Blair, Sabrina Rochefort, Élodie Vajda, and Anna Solecki, has identified much higher numbers of species than we would have expected. So some of the questions we’re now addressing are focused on how these rich communities of species co-exist in what otherwise looks like a harsh place. Of course, climate change continues to leave a mark on the north, so we’re also interested in the ongoing impacts of a warmer, wetter north on insect populations and communities.

Genetic questions. Beringia is a crossroads for insect species. Many of the native northern species probably survived the Pleistocene ice ages right here. But during peak periods of glaciation, insects from eastern Russia could fly or walk or crawl across the exposed bottom of the Bering Strait. This is why there are some species of widespread Eurasian species that also occur in Alaska and the Yukon. But since the end of glaciation, other southern species have moved northward, following suitable habitats northward into Beringia. So the communities of insects in some of these habitats are an interesting blend of insects from many places. The challenge is that we can’t always reconstruct that history just by identifying the species, because many are geographically widespread. So we have to delve into their DNA, where small changes and differences can be more obvious, and can tell us about recent movements and connections and divisions over the past several thousand years. This “phylogeographic” approach can give us a clearer picture of which species survived where, and how and when they’ve moved since the end of glaciation. Recently graduated student Anna Solecki has been exploring some of these patterns in northern flies and we’re hoping to keep exploring similar questions over the next few years.

From a distance, the north may look two-dimensional and uniform. To an entomologist, getting down to a fly-level view of things, this world is anything but! There are mysteries and questions here to keep me busy and excited for years to come.

So much still to discover. Tombstone Mountains, Yukon (photo: T.A. Wheeler)

So much still to discover. Tombstone Mountains, Yukon (photo: T.A. Wheeler)

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Taxonomy matters. Here’s why.

March 19th is Taxonomist Appreciation Day. I don’t think any government has made official pronouncements on that. That’s OK, we’ve got something better — social media. Taxonomist Appreciation Day was the brainchild of Terry McGlynn, an ecologist who understands the critical role that good taxonomy plays in, for example, understanding the ecology of tropical ants. In fact, taxonomy matters in many ways. The problem is that a lot of people, both inside and outside biology, don’t always realize how fundamental taxonomy is to the rest of biology.

Taxonomist Appreciation Day is a chance for people who don’t necessarily interact with taxonomists on a daily basis to say “hey, thanks”. But what are people thanking taxonomists for? What do taxonomists DO?

We discover new species and give them names. When we do that, we’re describing a little tiny piece of the diversity of life on earth, and taking a tiny step closer to understanding the planet.

We build the classifications that are the filing system to organize the diversity of life on earth. That filing system of genera and families and orders and the rest is the big information retrieval system that connects scientists and non-scientists to all the information about species.

We construct keys and field guides and other identification tools to allow non-taxonomists to identify species. These identification tools are the most direct way that we translate and transmit taxonomic knowledge to non-specialists. So, when you identify species using a key or a molecular library, although you’re not actually doing taxonomy, you’re using tools created by taxonomists (you’re welcome. It was our pleasure). And when those keys are really good and clear and smooth, it’s sometimes easy to forget the enormous amount of training, experience and hard work that went into producing that key.

We reconstruct phylogenetic relationships of species and higher taxa to produce hypotheses about shared evolutionary history. And those patterns of relationships form the basis for all sorts of other hypotheses in evolution and ecology. That’s because everything about species evolves. When we build a phylogenetic tree based on characteristics of the species, we’re building a picture of history, not just the history of those characters, but of their ecology, species associations, behavior, physiology, geographic distribution and other traits as well. That’s a powerful framework for interpreting patterns.

We build, organize and maintain the collections in natural history museums. We maintain the irreplaceable libraries of life, the place you can go to verify the identity of species, or to access other information about those specimens. We make the enormous resources represented by specimens available and accessible to other researchers.

That’s what taxonomists do. That’s why our work matters.

So, when we say “Thanks” to a taxonomist, it can be for any of a number of things:

“Thanks for putting a name on that new species so I can Google it”

“Thanks for publishing some photos and drawings so I know what that species looks like”

“Thanks for writing a decent key so I can identify these species from my research project”

“Thanks for identifying those mystery specimens that didn’t key out at all”

“Thanks for building that phylogenetic tree, so I know what this species is related to, and so I can plug in these functional traits and get some predictive power”

“Thanks for those natural history observations about habitat, behavior and food that you put in your taxonomic paper”

“Thanks for putting those specimens you collected in the museum. I’ll be able to [measure them/extract their DNA/look for chemical signatures/check their geographic range] soon for this other thing I’m working on”


Taxonomy is not “done”. There are millions of species still to describe and many more still to slot into their place on the tree of life. And not just in the wild places of the tropics. Here, in our back yards, in our parks, in our cities.

Taxonomy is not “old-fashioned”. Our tools and techniques evolve just as quickly as the tools of physics and medicine and molecular biology (heck, they’re some of the same tools), and allow us to explore new levels of complexity in the organisms we study. Some of our methods are timeless, and some are at the cutting edge of science. They all work. Really well.

Taxonomy is not the occasional new species of bug named after a celebrity. For every celebrity species name that makes a splash in the media, hundreds more appear in the primary scientific literature. Those names, derived from characteristics of the species, or the place they live, or their habits, or the person who collected the specimen,  may not be as entertaining, but they’re just as meaningful and the species are just as important. Taxonomists describe thousands of species every year. We’re busy.

Taxonomy is not an isolated pursuit. At least it shouldn’t be. Given the connections between taxonomy and the rest of biology, we have tons of opportunities to collaborate, to interact, to advise, to contribute.

I became a taxonomist because of my interactions with some great professors in my undergrad courses who did taxonomy; people like Dave Larson, who liked water beetles, and Bill Threlfall, who worked on parasites (and birds). I did both my graduate degrees in taxonomy: a M.Sc. with Mary Beverley-Burton, who taught me a lot about parasitic flatworms; and a PhD with Steve Marshall, whose infectious excitement about flies made me excited about flies. A couple of decades on, I work with a great group of undergrad and grad students doing taxonomy in the lab now. They help keep me excited about flies. About discovery. About the little thrill of being the first person to put a name on another tiny twig on the big tree of life.

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