Drowning in Diptera

Sometimes I think there might be such a thing as too much data.

I expanded my research program a few years ago from just taxonomy and systematics, into community ecology of insects. This meant I had to change the way I view fieldwork and sampling and data management and publication. Mostly, it changed the way I deal with samples, because in ecological analyses, it’s not just the presence or absence of a species that matters, but the relative abundance of species from place to place, time to time. Obviously – and this might just be the biggest difference in how “Taxonomist Me” collects compared to “Ecologist Me” – I can’t simply stop collecting a particular species when I have “enough”. To do so would mess up a lot of the quantitative analyses we need to do in order to answer our ecological questions.

Our ongoing Diptera work in the Northern Biodiversity Program is a fantastic example of the challenges with Big Data Sets. Two years of large scale sampling (plus a partial third), 12 main sites, 2 weeks per site, 6 Malaise trap samples, 54 pan traps, 54 pitfall traps and multiple sweep samples per site. And flies are the most abundant and diverse group of insects in the arctic. By a LONG way. Don’t let moth people or wasp people tell you any different. We are drowning in flies. I’m thinking about this today in particular because Sabrina and Élodie, our summer stars of sorting, are expanding and rearranging the drawers of NBP Diptera to make room for more material. Again. And not for the last time.

Time to rearrange the drawer space. Again.

Field work is a delightful and high-profile, but very brief, component of a project like this one. The vast majority of the time and effort happens in the lab, as samples are sorted, specimens are processed, and species are identified and arranged for eventual data entry and analysis.

Mounting time. Élodie tackles another sample (photo: S. Rochefort)

And it’s when the drawers of identified material start to pile up that we realize just how much work there is still to do.

Sabrina at the scope (photo: É. Vajda)

A lot of us here in the Lyman (Meagan, Anna, Sabrina, Élodie, Amélie, Stéphanie, Terry) as well as some colleagues from the Canadian National Collection in Ottawa have already spent a lot of time identifying flies from the NBP’s arctic sites. We’ve found new species in some families, northern records of groups we didn’t expect to see up there, some intriguing patterns of change over space and over time in northern flies. And we’ve barely scratched the surface.

We’ll be mining this monster data set for years to come. And great things (taxonomic, ecological, genetic) will come out of it.

I just have to remind myself not to look at the entire enormous pile of insect drawers all at once. It’s, well, too scary.

Too. Many. Muscids.

About terry wheeler

professor, museum director, entomologist, ecologist, naturalist
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5 Responses to Drowning in Diptera

  1. Seeing all that material to be processed just makes me cringe – then I look at my own backlog of unprocessed material and want to hide – I can’t even keep up with the volume that “taxonomist me” collects! A good argument for not making the switch from taxonomist to ecologist (just kidding!).

    On a more serious note, this post is serves as an excellent example of one reason why numbers of specimens are so important in biological collections.

  2. Too true, Ted! The backlog of chloropid flies that I’ve accumulated just for species descriptions and revisions is embarrassingly big. Once we started down the path of quantitative ecological work, that feeling of being overwhelmed by the backlog was compounded. I suspect we’ll be into 6 figures on arctic Diptera specimens when this project is wrapped up. But there are SOOOO many great questions in ecology, evolution and conservation that we can address when we have good standardized sampling, and a good way to get at species abundance across lots of sites! Plus, that much sampling effort is always bound to turn up rarities and new things for taxonomic work.

    The only thing that is making this whole arctic project even remotely possible is a gang of truly fantastic students. Without them, the whole enterprise would be sunk.

    See you in Knoxville!

  3. Pingback: The Weekly Flypaper » Biodiversity in Focus Blog

  4. Pingback: “Mastering” northern flies: another student crosses the finish line | Lyman Entomological Museum

  5. Pingback: “Mastering” northern flies: another student crosses the finish line | Northern Biodiversity Program

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