Thursday, February 18, 2010

Another Discovery

Perusing the website today, I was prompted to comment to one post regarding the whereabouts of specimens I had lent to the person posting the image. What I learned in his private reply was a delightful surprise.

First off, I must apologize to one Robert Otto for taking our personal business to a public forum. I had misplaced his e-mail, but that is really no excuse. It is not very good ‘netiquette, and it won’t happen again.

Bob was kind enough to write me back straight away, and explained in a very professional manner what had become of my specimens. He and a team of other entomologists are revising the classification of “false click beetles” in the family Eucnemidae. My specimens, and the accompanying data, are part of that effort. They are nearly finished with their work, and then specimens will be returned.

Well, it turns out there is very good reason they are hanging on to a few of mine permanently. Among the common species, like Isorhipis obliqua, were specimens of a species new to science.

My specimens will be “paratypes,” a scientific term for specimens from a particular geographic location that are a subset of a larger series of specimens from which the species will be described and named. The specimens will be deposited in a museum for security, and for the accessibility of scientists wishing to study them.

This marks the third species I have helped to discover. The first two were a species of robber fly in the genus Laphria, and a spider wasp in the genus Dipogon. I collected all three species in parks in Cincinnati, Ohio.

While this is all very exciting, it is also fairly mundane in the world of entomology. Many new species are “discovered” each year. A few of these are discovered in the field while collecting, especially in the tropics where insect diversity is poorly known. Perhaps a greater proportion of “new” species are created as a result of revisions of genera. Specimens once thought to belong to one species are found to actually be complexes of several species. Molecular analysis and other DNA work has revealed that there are often many “cryptic” species within current classifications based solely on morphological characters.

I am often asked “Do you get to name the species?” or “Will they name it after you?” There are strict rules for naming species, genera, and other taxa, set forth by the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature. That body enforces the International Code for Zoological Nomenclature. It is considered in poor taste to name something after yourself, but honoring a mentor, colleague, spouse, or celebrity is not uncommon.

It is enough for me to know that I’ve made a small contribution to the scientific community by making my specimens accessible to researchers like Bob Otto who are doing serious work, and I don’t say this with any false modesty. I am not a scientist, but find my own niche in bridging the gap between entomologists and the general public. That is my work.


  1. Thanks for sharing this story, Eric. It's cool to learn the "back story" on new species -- first hand!

    You are doing your work splendidly.

  2. I hope somebody names a species after you. You deserve it. My stepson had a species of frog named after hims and now he has the dubious distinction of that species probably being extinct! He says: "I am still alive and my frog isn't". Very sad!