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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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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High fliers: a new paper on some new arctic flies

Many people see the arctic as a pretty barren place, with not much biological diversity. In fact, one of the most well-known patterns in ecology — the latitudinal diversity gradient — incorporates that idea. As you leave the tropics and head north, species diversity drops. Apparently, the flies didn’t get the memo. There are lots of flies in the north. Lots. In fact, some groups of flies are so successful at living in the north that they defy the latitudinal diversity gradient and are much more diverse in the far north than in warm temperate or tropical regions. Lyman M.Sc. student Sabrina Rochefort and I have just published a new paper on one of those families, the skipper flies, or Piophilidae.

In our research with the Northern Biodiversity Program, we collected arthropods at 12 sites across northern Canada from treeline to the northern tip of Ellesmere Island. And flies were the most abundant group of arthropods at those sites, especially in the north. So far we’ve processed more than 100,000 flies representing a few hundred species of flies from our sites. And early on in the project, Sabrina, who was an undergrad student at the time, adopted the little family Piophilidae. Nobody had really worked on the family in North America since Frank McAlpine, another Canadian fly worker, published a taxonomic overview of the family in the 1970s, so they were ripe for some new attention.

Sabrina’s first task was to identify the species we had from our northern collections. Fortunately, most of the specimens that McAlpine had studied, including northern material collected a half-century ago by the Northern Insect Survey, were two hours up the road at the Canadian National Collection of Insects in Ottawa. Sabrina sorted out the material, putting names on the known species, and flagging the weird things for a closer look. As often happens in taxonomy, that closer look turned up some new discoveries.

The first discovery was a fly that Sabrina recognized early on as a new species. The first specimens she recognized were collected at Kugluktuk, Nunavut, a small hamlet near the mouth of the Coppermine River, where NBP grad student Crystal Ernst spent the summer collecting in 2010. Soon, we started finding more specimens of this new species from our other northern sites, and in some older museum samples from the Rocky Mountains in Alberta and British Columbia, and even a few specimens from northern Sweden that former Lyman grad student Jade Savage collected more than a decade ago. We now know this new species is widespread in northern Canada and also in Sweden, but the first locality was special enough that Sabrina decided to call the new species Parapiophila kugluktuk.

Parapiophila kugluktuk, a new species from northern Canada (from Rochefort & Wheeler, 2015)

Parapiophila kugluktuk, a new species from northern Canada (from Rochefort & Wheeler, 2015)

But a species doesn’t have to be new to be a surprise. Sabrina also identified a couple of new North American records of species that were previously known only from Europe, or from Europe and Greenland. This is a fairly common occurrence in arctic insects, as well as other arctic species, where the same species is found in both North America and Eurasia. On the other hand, two of the previously known species looked a little too similar, so we looked at as many specimens as we could, extracted and sequenced DNA barcodes, and concluded that, even though they are known under two names, we couldn’t justify treating them as distinct species, so we combined the two under a single name. One new species added, one old species synonymized – a taxonomic trade-off that happens a lot in this sort of work.

We also looked at the distribution of the species from south to north. There was a little surprise here too. Very few species or specimens were collected at boreal forest sites near treeline (in these sites many other fly families were still very diverse in our samples). On the other hand, 16 of the 17 piophilid species identified were collected at low arctic tundra sites on the Canadian mainland. Even on the far northern arctic islands, we collected only five species, but hundreds of specimens. Piophilids seem to thrive on the tundra. They’re tough little flies.

Shiny little survivors.


Rochefort, S. & Wheeler, T.A. 2015. Diversity of Piophilidae (Diptera) in northern Canada and description of a new Holarctic species of Parapiophila McAlpine. Zootaxa 3925: 229-240.

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Who’s that fly and WHAT is it eating? A new paper from the lab

One of the most widely used products of taxonomy is the identification key. A key allows somebody who isn’t a specialist on a particular group to put a name on an unknown species. At least, that’s how it all works in Dream World. Unfortunately, as a frequently used cliché in taxonomy says: many keys are written by people who don’t need them, for people who can’t use them. In other words, the expert who wrote the key knows exactly what he or she means by “wide” vs. “narrow”, or “normal” vs. “pale”, or “modified” vs. “unmodified” (and they haven’t bothered to include any pictures), but that’s no help at all to the student sitting at a microscope 500 miles away and 50 years later, who has never talked to that expert.

We (taxonomists) should be writing keys that are used and usable by people who are not taxonomists, thereby letting us (taxonomists) get on with the enormous task of describing all those new species that aren’t yet in the keys. But a lot of keys aren’t usable. I’m a fly taxonomist and even I can’t work my way through some fly keys, because they’re, well, awful.

We must, as my colleague and mentor Steve Marshall puts it, democratize taxonomy. A few years ago, Steve made a major contribution to the democratization of taxonomy when he launched the Canadian Journal of Arthropod Identification, an open-access, online journal with the express mandate of making identification easier, especially for non-specialists.

Forensic entomologists are one group of non-taxonomists whose work depends on accurate identification of insects. And it’s a lot harder to identify those insects than TV shows would have us believe. One of the main groups of forensically important insects is the blow flies, family Calliphoridae, and there’s a CJAI key for that. But many other insects are part of the carrion community, including a group of little flies that often comes later to the party, colonizing bodies in more advanced stages of decay. This is the family Piophilidae, and they’re small and hard to identify. And because of that, many forensic studies either don’t identify them, or get them wrong. That’s a problem because those studies are potentially missing out on important data. Fortunately for forensic entomology, we now have a North American expert on this family — Sabrina Rochefort, a M.Sc. student in my lab.

Sabrina has just published her first journal paper, along with collaborators Marjolaine Giroux, Jade Savage and me. Sabrina decided to address the lack of a decent key to the piophilid flies for forensic entomology. Her paper, just published in CJAI, is the first well-illustrated key to the species of piophilid flies associated with dead bodies in North America.

Mycetaulus subdolus. A piophilid fly. It eats dead things.

Mycetaulus subdolus. It eats dead things.

Sabrina’s first task was determine which piophilid species are important in forensic entomology and which species tend to eat fungi, decaying vegetation or other things (it’s an ecologically diverse family). A review of the literature helped start building the list, but examination of label data on specimens in museum collections turned up some new records of piophilid species on carrion as well. A third great source of data was an ongoing field study led by our co-authors Marjolaine and Jade on insects associated with carrion in three different regions of Quebec. This combination of fieldwork, museum material, and published records is often how we find and compile taxonomic and ecological data.

The next, and most important, step in building a key is to decide which characters are the most useful in distinguishing species, but also the most easily visible and least ambiguous. There might, for example, be obvious differences in small parts of the male reproductive system, only visible after you dissect specimens. Or it might just be easier to see if the legs are yellow or black. Ideally, a key should be clear to somebody who’s never looked at these insects before. And the easiest way to accomplish that is with illustrations. Good illustrations. Lots of them. With arrows and circles showing important things. And clear language in the key that links to those pictures.

The easiest way to make a key. Does it look like A or does it look like B

The easiest way to make a key. Does it look like A or does it look like B?

Once a species is identified, it’s also very helpful to know a little more about it, so the paper also includes a species page for each piophilid, listing what’s known about its habits, geographic distribution, and any known variation in colour or shape. This sort of natural history information isn’t always included in published keys, but it’s very helpful for people (like, say, forensic entomologists) wanting to know a little more about the fly they’ve just identified.

A species page from Rochefort et al. (2015)

A species page from Rochefort et al. (2015)

Of course, these forensically relevant species are only a small subset of the piophilid flies we can find in North America. They live in a range of habitats, from the arid southwest, to the highest high arctic islands, and they play a range of ecological roles. Those species need to be described, and their phylogenetic relationships established, and good keys need to be constructed for them. Sabrina’s in her office now, surrounded by specimens. She’s on the case.


Rochefort, S., Giroux, M., Savage, J., and T.A. Wheeler. 2015. Key to forensically important Piophilidae (Diptera) in the Nearctic Region. Canadian Journal of Arthropod Identification 27.

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20 Years in the Professor Game: things I did right and things I did wrong

In late December, 1994 I arrived in Montreal with several boxes of books and papers, most of my belongings, and absolutely no idea what I was getting into. I had a week to unpack, get groceries, become a professor, and plan an undergrad course. I survived that first week, and that first term, and am, somewhat inexplicably, still here at McGill University. Over the course of the past 20 years I’ve done a lot of things right, and I’ve done a lot of things wrong. Some of those things happened early on in my time here; some more recently, but they’ve all had an impact on how I do my job and (theoretically) live my life. It seemed like a good anniversary to look back on some of them. Some of my perspectives might be useful; or they might not be.

Let’s start, as is traditional, with the bad news.

Things I did wrong

Didn’t find a mentor. For new faculty members just starting out, a slightly senior colleague can be a guide, a sounding board, and an advisor. Our department has a policy of matching up new hires with a mentor, but this wasn’t in place when I started out, and I didn’t think to seek one out myself. I just dove in and tried to figure it all out. Two people, both senior, and both now retired, who sat me down for “the tenure talk” advised me as follows: “I’m sure you’re on the right track and it’ll all work out fine”; and “get some visiting scientists to come to your lab and put your name on their papers”. Yeah. Thanks.

Took on too much. I said yes. A lot. Too many committees. Too much team teaching. Too many little ad hoc things “that shouldn’t take too much time at all”. That was mostly dumb. Obviously new hires need to take on some service and administration, but you have to be ruthless in protecting your research time and your teaching time. Choose wisely! The system finds it just a little too easy to take advantage of new people who are willing. If there’s a teeny-tiny shred of Ayn Rand inside you somewhere, this is the time (the only time!) to awaken it.

Started without finishing. As time goes by, we have lots of students through the lab, and chats at conferences, and great exchanges with colleagues, and lots of time to think when we’re out in the field. And all of those things generate ideas — sometimes great ideas, and sometimes dead ends. One of the biggest errors I made was to dive too quickly into new ideas and new projects before wrapping up old ones. The result is a really long list of subfolders in my folder called “manuscripts on hold”. Dumb.

Failed to delegate. Sometimes, I’m too hands-on. Sometimes I’ve delegated too much responsibility to others and it’s blown up in my face. Sometimes I’ve exercised too much control and it’s blown up in my face. Fortunately, eyebrows grow back. The reality is that when we start up a research group, we usually manage to surround ourselves with people who are mostly good. They’re fine on their own. Every now and then somebody is not. No biggie, as long as they aren’t taking somebody else down with them. But that’s why I like everybody to have their own separate project.

Aimed for perfect. Nothing is perfect. Nothing. Is. Perfect. I tell this to my students. There’s no point sitting on results or ideas or projects or manuscripts until they’re perfect. Because they won’t be. They have to be carefully executed, clearly written, and good enough to advance the field of science. And then we put them out there. Despite all this, I still sit on projects or manuscripts for far longer than I should because I’m worried about them not being good enough, because I’m waiting for more data, because I’m waiting for new insights to mystically appear. Or maybe because I don’t want to deal with the rejection. This is dumb.

Sacrificed personal time. For various reasons, I spent a lot of time avoiding things when I was younger. I was voted Most Likely to Avoid Everything in my high school graduating class (really). Something obviously snapped at some point and ever since I found my niche in biology I’ve become more ambitious, more engaged. But I also struggle with time management. That combination means that I’ve spent far too much time on work-related things – working on my teaching, on research projects, managing the museum, doing curation, answering emails, doing committee work. And all that came at the expense of time spent away from work. And that was dumb. I shouldn’t have done that, and nobody else should either.

Things I did right

Resisted the Impact game. I’m often grateful that Impact Factors and H-indices weren’t such a ridiculous obsession when I got into this game. As a taxonomist, I would have been (and still would be) on the losing end of such bean-counting exercises. Yes, it’s nice to get papers into “good” journals, and it’s nice to see our work cited by others. BUT, when I sit on search committees where one of the members builds a short list based on whether or not people have Nature papers, or when external reviewers of my grant applications go through the effort of calculating my H-index (usually incorrectly) and use it to judge my quality as a scientist, or when I get dropped from a grant application because my H-index is the lowest among the co-PIs (yes, that happened), it reminds me that the system is a little bit broken. Yes, I aim higher with manuscripts than I used to, but I think it’s because my students are doing more significant work than I did when I first started out. But some of the papers I’m most proud of, and which are the most important, appeared in journals with lower impact factors, and I am so perfectly fine with that. Impact matters, but there are many ways to measure impact, and obsessing about one particular flavour of it is ultimately self-defeating.

Diversified my research. I was trained as a taxonomist, and hired as a taxonomist. But not all the students in my first cohort of interested students wanted to do taxonomy. Fair enough. Taxonomy is really just one end of a continuum that runs from fundamental taxonomy through biodiversity inventories out to questions about community structure and ecology. Why shouldn’t a single lab have people working at multiple points along that continuum? By sticking to their desire to do inventories, or restoration ecology, or community structure or biogeography, my students have helped me become a more well-rounded scientist over the years, and it’s made the lab a much more interesting place. And, as a bonus, the taxonomists in the lab provide their expertise to the ecologists and the ecologists in the lab bring in fantastic material and data for the taxonomists. Win-win.

Kept the lab small. I get the distinct impression that The System wants me to have funding in the high six-figure range, and at least a dozen or so grad students and postdocs in the lab at a time. But, I work best when I’ve got 3-5 grad students in the lab. It gives me time to connect with them, to check in on the projects, and to do some of my own research too. I’ve also resisted the temptation to get involved in research grants or projects that are well outside my areas of interest just for the sake of getting more money. I’d rather be judged, in the long run, on how many great people and how much good research comes out of the lab, than how much money comes in.

Got into the field. I can’t stress enough how important field work has been to me. Time in the field is like rebooting my brain after too much paperwork causes it to freeze up. Fieldwork is not just where I get my data, it’s where I can talk research and science and careers and food and history with my students. It’s where I can take the time to see connections and patterns that I wouldn’t otherwise see in the lab. It’s where my new questions come from. If I couldn’t go in the field, I wouldn’t do this job.

Embraced teaching. Some people view teaching as a necessary evil. A chore to endure so they can get on with research. That’s a recipe for bitterness. For most professors, teaching is part of what we do. It’s part of our job. I love it. Always have. It’s my chance to tell stories about nature. It’s my chance to contract infectious enthusiasm from students who love the program they’re in. It’s the place I identify potential summer students and lab volunteers and grad students. Lots of my grad students over the years started out in my undergrad courses. Teaching is also my chance to learn new material in new areas – evolution, ecology, geology, paleoecology, anthropology, phylogeography and more. In other words, it made me a better scientist.

Built an online presence. This is a recent one. Should have started earlier. I started this blog early in 2011, initially to publicize the research and people in our lab, but the scope has expanded since then. I came late to Twitter (March 2014), but I’m very glad I did. It takes almost no time to set up a Google Scholar profile and it’s an easy and highly visible way to highlight your research output and track its impact (and I mean that in the “small-i impact” sense). ResearchGate and do somewhat similar things to Google Scholar, but each does things the others don’t. I have a LinkedIn profile but, to be honest, I don’t use that much. I think LinkedIn is much more useful to people at other career stages, or in different domains, but maybe that’s just my experience. As with all things online, your mileage may vary. BUT, please give some careful thought to your online presence. We are increasingly linked with it, and it’s the easiest way to promote your abilities, make connections, and connect with a very big, very diverse community beyond your own institution or domain. It’s a small investment of time and effort that can yield enormous rewards.


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Spiders with an identity crisis: a new taxonomy paper

Two wolf spiders, whose names are Pardosa lapponica and Pardosa concinna, run across open ground all over northern Canada. Here’s the problem: these two species of spiders live in a lot of the same places, and they look very similar. Katie Sim, a grad student working with Chris Buddle and me here at McGill, asked the obvious question: are these spiders really separate species? Katie’s insights on that question were just published in the journal Zootaxa.

As taxonomists, we can use multiple kinds of evidence to determine species limits. This includes things like morphology, genetic sequence data, geographic distribution, and ecology. These two species were originally described from widely separated areas: P. lapponica from Lapland, and P. concinna from Colorado. But since then they’ve been found in many more sites and we now know that their ranges overlap in northern North America.

The other long-accepted way of distinguishing between these two species was a small morphological difference between their reproductive structures (many closely related arthropods look very similar externally, but if there are differences, we often see them in the genitalia. “Why?” is a topic for another post).

As Katie collected spiders as part of our Northern Biodiversity Program fieldwork in northern Canada, she realized that the morphological differences between the two species weren’t that clear-cut, once you take variation into account. Based on careful measurements of specimens from all across the north, Katie found overlap in almost all morphological characters, even genitalic characters that had been used in the past. There was only one small piece of the complex male mating structures (the terminal apophysis, for the spider fans reading along) that seemed to hold up as a difference between the species (and only the males, obviously). Question marks started to appear.

Confusion and variation in female reproductive parts.

Confusion and variation in female spider reproductive parts.

Katie’s next step was to delve into the genetic differences between the two species. Even though species can look very similar externally, DNA sequence data sometimes uncovers fine differences between them. This is especially helpful with closely related, or recently diverged species. Katie used the DNA barcode, a section of the mitochondrial gene CO1, which has proven pretty useful for distinguishing animal species. And the DNA results showed some interesting patterns, some of which were unexpected.

Haplotypes. A solar system of genetic diversity.

Haplotypes. A solar system of genetic diversity.

The figure above is a haplotype network. Each circle is a little island of genetic similarity, connected to other islands by the lines. We’d expect different species to be part of separate “islands”, but that didn’t happen here. Pardosa lapponica (in light gray) and P. concinna (in black) sometimes share the same haplotype, and each of the two has multiple haplotypes. That means there’s more genetic variation within a “species” than between them. But wait! There’s more!

After a suggestion from one of the reviewers on an earlier version of the paper (this back-and-forth of suggestions is one of the strengths of peer-reviewed science), Katie looked at the CO1 barcode sequences of P. lapponica specimens from northern Europe, where it was originally described. Unexpectedly, the Russian specimens (the dark gray circles without numbers in the figure above) were genetically distinct, by a good margin, from the North American specimens of P. lapponica.

So what does this all mean, taxonomically? First, the spider we call “Pardosa lapponica” in North America seems not to be the same species as “Pardosa lapponica” from northern Europe (which “owns” the name, because it was described from there first). Our North American P. lapponica may, in fact, be the same species as the spider we’ve been calling Pardosa concinna, but before we can make the final decision on that, it would be necessary to study additional North American specimens, especially from Colorado (the “type locality”, or collection site of the original P. concinna), to confirm this.

And that’s how taxonomy often works: good, careful research will answer one question, and in the process, new questions pop up. Sometimes, you think you know a spider, and sometimes, you realize you really don’t.


Sim, K.A., C.M. Buddle, and T.A. Wheeler. 2014. Species boundaries of Pardosa concinna and P. lapponica (Araneae: Lycosidae) in the northern Nearctic: morphology and DNA barcodes. Zootaxa: 3884: 169–178.

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Sometimes, a shirt is not just a shirt

In July 1969, I watched, with my family, as the Eagle lunar module touched down on the moon and Neil Armstrong took humanity’s first steps out there. I remember some of the details of that day with great clarity, others not so well. A couple of things that must have been true on that day were: my dad came home from work and hung out on the couch while my mom made dinner; and the childhood dream of “being an astronaut” may have been considered possible for me, but not for my sisters.

Today, in 2014, I watched, alone in my office, as the Philae lander disconnected from the Rosetta spacecraft and touched down on a comet 500,000,000 km away from here. In some ways we’ve made great progress in those 45 years; in some ways we haven’t.

I want to talk about “the shirt”. But first, a preamble . . .

A ridiculous paper was published a few weeks ago that claimed that we’ve pretty much solved the sexism problem in academia.  The paper was followed up by an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times that made the same argument even more clearly. Well, no. No, we haven’t. Rebuttals and takedowns of all the faulty assumptions, interpretations and conclusions in that paper were swift, and many, and loud (two great examples by Emily Willingham and Jonathan Eisen are here) as they should have been. Science does have a sexism problem, and that problem is manifested in many ways, both subtle and overt. We see ample evidence of it on social media, in the literature, in line-ups of invited speakers at symposia and panels, or in any random subset of tweets from people like Richard Dawkins. I won’t bother linking up to any of the many examples here, you just need to spend any amount of time interacting with scientists on Twitter to see how widespread the problem is.

Now back to the comet . . .

In the internet age, big exciting events get lots of media coverage, and that coverage is immediate and wide-ranging. So the people at the control centre for the European Space Agency kind of had to know there’d be some TV coverage of the comet landing today, and the key players in the mission could have probably assumed they’d be interviewed. But despite all that, for some unknown reason, project scientist Matt Taylor decided to wear this shirt to work today:

The Shirt; The Shirt

The Shirt; The Shirt

Now, ok, I understand that many of us become scientists because we’re unconventional, because we’re individuals, because we’re quirky. Sure, some of us dress funny. I know lots of scientists, great scientists, who are pretty fond of Hawaiian shirts. But, really, seriously, did it not occur to Matt Taylor for maybe just a nanosecond, that appearing on camera, as a scientist, at a defining moment in the history of space exploration, in a shirt festooned with sprawling half-naked women (and a couple o’ guns) might, I dunno, send the wrong goddamn message?!?!

Here’s the thing. I’m a 50-something, white, male scientist. This means that, in the traditional structure of science and academia, I’ve had it pretty easy. Harder than some, but easier than most. But I have to say, from my position as a 50-something, white, male scientist, that it’s about time science had a lot more people who do not look like me. We need diversity, and we need it badly. We need to make science and research and academia a fair and welcoming place for people who are not white, straight, males. I’m not entirely sure how we’re going to get there. But there are two things I do know for certain:

1. We are only going to get there if senior, white dudes like me either step up and say “yes, let’s change things” and then work to make that change happen, or just shut up and get out of the way.

2. We are not going to get there if some of our visible scientists use their brief moments in the spotlight to convey a message (unintentional or not!) that females are better suited to being decorations than to being colleagues.

Science took a huge step forward today, and, thanks to one dumb fashion choice, one step back.




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Why do I blog about what I blog about?

One of the good things about Twitter is that it’s like a big party where I can wander around and drop in on as many conversations as I want. Most of them are related, on some level, to science and research and education and natural history. One topic I follow is a pretty important one — it’s about how and why scientists communicate, with each other, and with a broader audience outside our usual little world. Some of the people at the heart of this conversation, people like Paige Brown Jarreau, Kirk Englehardt, and the whole team at Science Borealis, have gotten me thinking about the why of my own efforts in science communication here; specifically, why do I blog about what I blog about?

When I started this blog early in 2011 I viewed it as an on-line newsletter for our lab — an opportunity to post updates about our research, our people, and our collection. And looking back at the first few posts, that’s pretty much what it was. But the blog has morphed and evolved since then, more by accident than by design.

I think this blog (and my too infrequent posts) now focuses on three general areas that are near and dear to my heart.

Communicating our research

The core of what we do here in the lab is research on insect biodiversity, and the main currency of that research is journal papers. But journal papers tend to be written for a specialist audience, which makes it more challenging for non-specialists to access our work. I think scientists have a duty to communicate their research to a broader audience and I see this blog as a chance to summarize our papers, in a more accessible way. I have a lot more freedom to talk about, for example, insect diversity in temperate treetops, or how we straighten out the taxonomy of some little South American flies.

Dispelling misconceptions

A lot of our research lies at the intersection of three misunderstood things: flies (which are often considered dangerous and annoying pests); taxonomy (which is often considered an old-fashioned pursuit that isn’t very “sciencey”), and natural history (which is often perceived as a bunch of retirees going birdwatching). Yet, flies are one of the most diverse, fascinating, and ecologically important groups of terrestrial organisms on the planet. And taxonomy and natural history are both part of the essential foundation for the rest of biology. Research and training in taxonomy and natural history are absolutely critical for understanding ecosystems, and we have vast amounts still to learn. And this message clearly resonates with people: some of my most popular posts here have been about why taxonomy is important, about what natural history is, and why it matters, and why natural history collections are a critical resource.

Science as a human enterprise

Hollywood and TV depictions aside, scientists are not emotionless, purely objective robots. Science is done by humans, with all the good and bad implications that carries. Media coverage of science often talks about the results or the implications of research, but not often about the people behind the research — the students and postdocs and professors and volunteers and collaborators who took the research from idea to data to paper. I like the human side of science. And I like history. So I write about people who aren’t telling their own stories on Twitter because they died a long time ago; about why I sometimes question myself and sometimes laugh at myself;  about why I need fieldwork;  and about why questions matter just as much as answers.

I don’t post as often as I’d like, mostly because other kinds of writing eat up a lot of my time. Sometimes I’ll start to write a post and then sit on it for ages. I’m indecisive that way (or maybe I’m not). Sometimes, if I’m inspired, I’ll have a good run of posts. Sometimes I am anything but inspired. I should probably post more. Yeah . . .

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The phone, the program, and the big dark room: Twitter at a conference

I wrote a post a little while ago about my first 100 days of Twitter. Sort of a report card from a late adopter. I took another step on the social media stairway last week, when I attended the Ecological Society of America annual meeting in Sacramento, California. it was my first conference since joining Twitter and, in addition to checking out lots of great talks and posters, I decided to check out some of the pros and cons (for me, at least. Your mileage may vary!) of dragging my “devices” around with me for the week.

The changing nature of “us and them”

The way we communicate and share science is changing, so gatherings of scientists have to change to keep up. The lines between scientists and non-scientists are blurring, as are the lines between researchers and the people who communicate research. We are increasingly connected, so even the distinction between those who had enough money or time to attend the conference, and who did not, is becoming fuzzy.

The changing relationship between who’s at a conference and who isn’t creates challenges for the societies hosting the meeting. In the rapidly evolving world of science communication, clear policies on what kind of sharing is and is not permitted are important. At ESA, for example, there was a stated policy in the program book prohibiting audio/video recordings or photographs of presentations (nothing about tweeting though!) Some recent meetings have been more open; some have been more closed. I think the next couple of years will see a real shift in these policies.

One of the oft-stated concerns about sharing presentations broadly is “fear of being scooped”. But, well, seriously, this is ecology, not smartphone design or pharmaceutical development. I suspect my results on the nature of arctic insect food webs and fly diversity are reasonably safe from industrial or academic espionage. Plus, we’re already presenting our research at a conference with 3500 people and our abstracts are posted online for the world to see, if they’re so inclined, so it’s not like there’s shroud of secrecy over our work.

A blue bird on my shoulder: pros and cons of Twitter at the conference

The Pros:

I connect with new people. This was the first conference at which I already knew some of the presenters via Twitter. So although we’d never actually met, I knew I wanted to check out their talks and posters on a wider array of subjects than I’d normally take in. And that’s mostly because I enjoyed their previous tweets about their research. It was nice to put faces to the names and be able to talk with people in real time. Of course, there were Twittery benefits as well. I followed a few new people and picked up a few new followers as a result of connecting with them at the meeting.

I concentrate more in talks. If I’m going to send out tweets about a presentation it’s probably a good idea to get it right. And because I would likely only post a small number of tweets about each, I wanted to make sure I was capturing the big picture, without sending out specific details about the actual results. This one surprised me the most — I have trouble keeping my brain focused sometimes and one of my initial reservations about diving into social media was the opportunity for twitchiness and distraction. The fact that I found the opposite result while listening to talks was a bit of a revelation (I briefly toyed with the idea of live-tweeting my own attempts to write to see if it would help my focus, but quickly realized that would be insanely boring and nobody would follow me any more).

I see what’s happening in talks I missed. With 20–30 concurrent sessions at an ESA meeting it’s hopeless to try and see every talk you want to (posters are different, because ESA has a dedicated 2-hour block at the end of each day when authors are at their posters, nothing else is scheduled, and there is beer. I wish other societies I belong to would do this at their meetings). But even with concurrent sessions I could, for example, keep up with the session on Theory vs. Empiricism while listening to bee or tree or bird talks in another room. And if somebody tweets about a great climate change talk while I’m sitting in an ant talk somewhere else, I can at least flag the presenter and remind myself to check out their work another time.

I practice communicating science. Let’s be realistic — if we write our science so that only other scientists read it, what’s the point of doing it in the first place? We, as researchers, have a responsibility to communicate what we do, and what it means, to a broader audience. And social media is one of the best mechanisms for doing that. Some people I know are great at this. Some are not great. But we can all use the practice. Doing it in 140-character bursts is challenging, but not as hard as writing a manuscript.

We can promote each other. Our community is big, but not that big. There are some great people doing really great work, at all levels of The System, both inside and outside academia. Some of the best talks and posters I saw at the meeting were by grad students and post-docs, at early stages in their careers. They’re not “big names” (yet), but they’re asking great questions, doing great research, and presenting it with consummate enthusiasm and clarity. Other people deserve to know who they are (think of it as the non-Hollywood equivalent of “10 rising actors to watch”, but in a realm that actually means something).

We can extend the discussions. Talks are short, and question periods are even shorter. But there’s no need to for the discussion to end there. I saw some great examples of discussions about research or approaches or methods that went beyond the end of the talk, and beyond the people who were in the room.

We can check in on other events. For entomologists, this was the Summer of Meetings. There were major gatherings for specialists on many orders around the globe. Unfortunately for me as a fly person, the ESA meeting overlapped exactly with the International Congress of Dipterology in Germany. I chose ESA for a variety of reasons, but found it remarkably easy to keep up with what was going on at the fly meeting via  frequent tweets from some excellent and connected colleagues. As an added bonus, the time shift between California and Germany meant I could get my fly feed in the late evening and early morning when the rush of ESA was less intense.

The Cons:

. . .


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Remembrance of things past: footprints in a log

I spent last week at the annual Ecological Society of America conference in Sacramento, California. It’s a huge gathering of ecologists, and it’s amazingly diverse. Ecology is as big as the planet, and the range of presentations and conversations at the meeting are as big as ecology. I like going. It gets me excited about science, it challenges me and pushes me to understand research that’s unfamiliar to me, and it gives me the chance to interact with other people who work on very different organisms and research questions. But it’s a lot of time to spend inside, especially in the summer, so I always try to take a day or two at the end of the conference each year and go someplace quiet and wild. This year I drove east from Sacramento, out of the Central Valley and up through the hills, watching the landscape change, until I was up in the conifer trees and granite rock on the crest of the Sierra Nevada at Donner Pass. I parked the car and went for a walk. I saw lots of great things up there, from tiny plants growing in crevices, to craggy mountains I’ve hiked on past trips through the area.

I also saw this lying by the trail:

Ecological footprints: beetle galleries in a conifer log (photo T.A. Wheeler)

Ecological footprints: beetle galleries in a conifer log (photo T.A. Wheeler)

And that’s what this post is about.

The squiggles on this log were made by beetle larvae, eating their way through the outer layers of the wood, hidden under the bark, while this tree was still standing, or just after it fell. That’s the easy story, but it only tells part of what went on here, only a small fraction, really. These squiggles are footprints of a huge set of interactions.

The adult female beetles that laid their eggs here probably didn’t choose this tree randomly. Plants get stressed by a huge variety of factors: changes in water or temperature; a hard winter or summer; diseases or pests; pollution; damage from fires or storms; or just old age. And the plants put out chemical signals of  stress that many insects are adapted to detect. These beetles came here because they picked up that signal on the breeze.

There’s a huge variety of beetles that live in trees. Some of them eat wood; some eat the inner layers of bark, others excavate  galleries under the bark to rear fungi that the female brought in with her and left behind along with her eggs. The tree becomes a habitat for growing a fungal garden. Other fungi, drifting on the wind, will colonize the tree too, finding a way through the protective bark in the holes made by the beetles. Bacteria show up as well, and add to the community living in the beetle galleries.

The beetles themselves give off chemical signals that other organisms pick up. Parasitoid insects use a range of cues and clues to locate host insects inside the tree and lay eggs in, on or near the hosts, turning the beetle larva into a food source for their offspring. Predatory insects colonize the galleries and hunt down the beetles, while fungus feeding insects or bacterial grazers move in and feed on the fungi and microbes. Some insects specialize in feeding on frass — the nutrient-rich droppings and debris created by the wood-feeding beetles moving through their galleries. Bigger players move in as well – woodpeckers and other birds pick insects from the bark and wood, and small mammals dig into fallen logs. It’s a diverse little food web there under the bark, and many of the players will, in their own way, contribute to breaking down the bark, and the underlying wood, recycling the tree and speeding up its decay.

You might look at this log and see only beetle galleries. And if that’s your main research focus then that would be a perfectly reasonable perspective. Somebody else might look at the log and see the fungi, or the woodpeckers, or the parasitoids, or the little frass-eating flies, or the cycling of nutrients that goes on in and under the decaying wood. Or, you could step back and see the big picture, the whole complicated, messy food web.

Ecology, and our ecology conferences, are kind of like that. We’re interested in different questions, and we like different organisms. Some of us do most of our research in the field, some of us do our work at the lab bench, and some of us at the computer. We wear different clothes to work, and we use different tools. But, in a sense, we’re all looking at the same log.


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