How many people does it take to describe a new species?

The Myth of the Solitary Taxonomist goes a bit like this: Solitary Taxonomist goes away to an exotic place, usually with at least one hazard to life and limb, usually land leeches. Collects a specimen. Recognizes it immediately as a new species. Comes home, writes a Solitary Paper describing the new species. Yes, it happens that way sometimes. But mostly it doesn’t.

In my previous post I talked about our latest paper from the lab in which grad student Sabrina Rochefort and I described a new species of fly that we called Parapiophila kugluktuk. That’s two taxonomists, for those keeping score. But, a lot more work and effort, by a lot more people, went into getting those specimens under Sabrina’s microscope so she could recognize those flies as something unusual and unknown. In a series of posts a couple of years ago I talked about the steps we go through to get insect samples from the field to the pin, and from specimen sorting to data analysis. But I want to talk a little bit about the back story of this particular new species. So, in the interest of showing that science is rarely a really solitary pursuit, and that there are almost always more people who deserve credit than the people who wrote the paper, in this post I’ll talk about the past events that intersected to get those flies into our hands.

Sometime late in 2008, four of us (Chris Buddle, Doug Currie, Donna Giberson and I) launched a plan to see if we could get a research grant to go north and study arctic arthropods in a changing north. Arctic fieldwork is expensive, and complicated, so in addition to applying to NSERC (the main funding agency), we also had to assemble a big list of partners, collaborators and other supporters, both in the north, and here in the south. In the end, the huge amount of work was worth it, because we got the grant.

Most of that money was going to go into fieldwork (flights, rental vehicles, fuel, food to keep the field teams healthy and happy) and salaries (not just for our postdoc and grad students, but undergrad lab and field assistants, northern field assistants, bear monitors, guides) and arranging the travel and housing (or tenting!) for all those people each year was a big job.

The project was mainly ecological, which means we had to design, set up and service standardized sampling grids in each of our 12 sites, from James Bay to the northern end of Ellesmere Island. But one of the side benefits of a well-designed ecology project is that the sampling also provides tons of great material for taxonomic work as well. In most of our sites we sampled for two weeks per year to catch the peak of insect activity, but in Kugluktuk, Nunavut, grad student Crystal Ernst needed a full season’s data. So with some great field assistance from local people like Angut Pedersen, Kenneth Kuodluak and others, the Kugluktuk team collected for the whole, brief, arctic summer.

Of course, all these bulk samples had to be sorted, so there was another few months work back in the lab to separate the flies, beetles, spiders, wasps, etc. Students like Meagan Blair, Sarah Loboda, Katie Sim and Anna Solecki put in many long days doing this critical work. After all the sorting, cleaning, drying, pinning, labelling, and more sorting, we finally reached a point where Sabrina could take the trays labelled “Piophilidae”, look at those flies from Kugluktuk, and finally decide “this looks weird”.

But Sabrina’s insight was only possible because previous generations of taxonomists had described and illustrated species and written identification keys. And those taxonomists were often keen collectors who themselves deposited specimens in natural history museums. We described Parapiophila kugluktuk from almost 200 specimens, but only 33 of them came from Crystal’s Kugluktuk samples. Others came from our other northern sampling sites in 2010–2011, but many of the specimens had been sitting unidentified in museum collections for decades, waiting for an expert to take a good look at them.

The old Northern Insect Survey had collectors busy across northern Canada for 15 years starting in the late 1940s, and some of Canada’s great Diptera specialists: Jim Chillcott, Frank McAlpine, Guy Shewell, Dick Vockeroth and Monty Wood all collected at least one specimen of this new species and got them into the National Collection in Ottawa. Other specimens came from the efforts of beetle or wasp or moth experts who collected broadly and made the material available. All these efforts from decades ago let us expand the known range of Parapiophila kugluktuk beyond our own sampling sites and across northern North America and down the Rocky Mountains.

But this new species isn’t just restricted to North America. We also have specimens from Abisko in northern Sweden. Some of these were collected back in 1951 by Dick Vockeroth from Ottawa, who had just finished his Ph.D. But the rest of the Swedish material was collected in 2001 by Jade Savage, who was my PhD student at the time. During her Ph.D. program Jade went to Sweden to collect flies in a different family, the Muscidae, but brought back many more samples to the lab to be processed and labelled and sorted. And they’ve been sitting in a Piophilidae drawer, in a fly cabinet, in the museum down the hall from my office ever since. Until Sabrina revisited them.

So yes, two of us wrote that paper and described that new species, but only after many years work by grant writers, supervisors, postdocs, grad students, undergrad students, field assistants, guides, bear monitors, bush pilots, northern partners, collectors and curators came together across the decades and across institutions to drop those weird little flies on our desks.

When you think about it, even “solitary science” still takes a village.

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About terry wheeler

professor, museum director, entomologist, ecologist, naturalist
This entry was posted in Research News and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to How many people does it take to describe a new species?

  1. gunnarmk says:

    Just something as simple as shipping sorted specimens can take as many as three people and more than a month…

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