Once again: should we rename animal species?

May 29, 2023 • 12:15 pm

I’ve written several times about the current drive to rename plant and animal species, usually on the grounds that their common or scientific names reflect somebody in the past who did something bad, like owning slaves. (Most of this drive has involved bird names.) In general I’m not a huge fan of changing common names, but I don’t care nearly as much about changing common names as I do about changing scientific names, also known as Latin binomials. For example, “Audubon’s oriole” is the common name of a bird species, but its scientific name is Icterus graduacauda. So if you want to change the common name because (as one scientist notes), Audubon was “a bit of a monster”, I don’t much care. But you can’t change the scientific name (which doesn’t contain Audubon’s name), because the official body that assigns scientific names won’t let you.

This becomes problematic in a case like Audubon’s warbler, whose scientific name is Setophaga auduboni, in which both the common and scientific names are eponyms.  You can change the common name, but you wouldn’t be allowed to change the scientific name, so you couldn’t completely expunge Audubon. (The common name has in fact already been changed, with the warbler now called the “yellow-rumped warbler.”) In many cases a person’s name will appear in both common and scientific names, but you can’t change the latter.

Ed Yong’s latest piece in The Atlantic describes the political, moral, and ideological fights brewing around changing animal (and plant) names. It’s a good descriptor of the kerfuffle about naming, but fails on several counts.

To read it, click on the screenshot below, or if it’s paywalled I found the piece it archived here.

This is a good overview of the fracas. But there are two problems with it, the first more worrisome:

1.) Yong seriously downplays the fact that every animal has at least two names, as I indicated above. The common name can vary from place to place, but the scientific name is constant throughout the world, as it’s used by scientists to identify animals.  Yong does mention the two-names issue in one place, only in passing:

Whether common ones such as giraffe or scientific ones such as Giraffa camelopardalis, names act first as labels, allowing people to identify and classify living things.

But there’s a huge difference between changing common names and changing scientific ones.  Doing the former, like changing the name “Audubon’s warbler”, in which the scientific name isn’t eponymous, doesn’t affect much except the labels that bird aficionados give to the species. But changing the scientific name of a species is a big deal, because those are the names used throughout the entire scientific literature to identify species and to link biological information about that species, like Panthera leo as the scientific name of the lion. If you change the scientific name, it affects the entire scientific literature around that species, potentially causing mass confusion from Linnaeus’s time until today.

This is why the body concerned with the scientific names of animals, the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN), has refused to change the scientific names of any animal except in a few special cases that involve biology and taxonomy—but not ideology or politics (see below). (As far as I know, the equivalent botanical body hasn’t weighed in yet.)  So if you want to change “bad” animal names, as Yong appears to favor, you have to make it clear whether you want both common and scientific names changed, or just the common ones. Yong appears to favor changing both names for eponymous animals like Audubon’s warbler, but also seems to think that’s just as easy as changing common names. It is not, and that’s why the ICZN won’t do it.

2.) Yong doesn’t present both sides of the controversy, especially when he floats the newest idea:  that the names of all eponymous animals should be changed.  I wouldn’t really agree with that, but as one of Yong’s interviewers says, “only birders over 40” oppose renaming every animal named after a person.  In general, Yong seems to favor the idea that not only birds named after bad people like Audubon and John Bachman should be renamed, but that all animals bearing people’s names should be changed.  Of all the many people he quotes who favor name-changing, only one, Thomas Pape (head of the ICZN), says that it’s not his “mandate” to change scientific names. But even Pape says, well, scientists do it all the time, so his position is really a bit waffle-y.

The reason I think Yong takes sides in this controversy is that he quotes only those who favor changing names, including scientific ones, even quoting someone as saying that only old people—geezers like me over 40—are conservative about changing names.  If you present only one side of a controversy—and yes, it is a controversy, even among the young—it can be assumed you are on that side.

Although there are several reasons to oppose the willy-nilly changing of common names, Yong gives none. Thus the article is one-sided, and even favors what nearly all biologists oppose: the changing of scientific names on ideological, political, or moral grounds. Yet from my private conversations with birders, I know that there are many who oppose this drive to change names. You won’t hear from them, because the drive is designed to be “inclusive”, and if you oppose it you could be called a racist.

Let me give the list of reasons why people are favoring renaming animals (I’m not going to distinguish between common and scientific names because Yong doesn’t), and then I’ll give a few reasons why we should be wary about changing even common names. (Again, I’m dead set against changing scientific names.) Quotes from Yong’s article are indented.

a.) Immorality: bad people like Audubon, who did bad things, should not have animals named after them. If they did some good stuff, like Darwin (even though Yong mentions his racism), this doesn’t necessarily hold. Any species with the name darwinii is presumably okay. Here’s the argument (“eponyms” are organisms named after people):

Many other eponyms present similar cases for change, although none have been altered yet. John Kirk Townsend, whose name still graces two birds and almost a dozen mammals, dug up the graves of Native Americans and sent their skulls to the physician Samuel George Morton, who wanted to prove that Caucasians had bigger brains than other people; those remains are still undergoing a lengthy process toward burial or repatriation. John Bachman was a practitioner and defender of slavery, reasoning that Black people, whom he compared to domesticated animals, were so intellectually inferior to Caucasians as to be “incapable of self-government”; Bachman’s sparrow was named by his friend, John James Audubon. And Audubon, the most renowned—and, more recently, notorious—figure in American ornithology and the namesake of an oriole, a warbler, and a shearwater, also robbed Native American graves for Morton’s skull studies, while casually buying and selling slaves. “People have been singing his praises for 150 years, but in the last 15 years, he has turned out to be quite a monster,” says Matthew Halley, an ornithologist and historian, who has also found evidence that Audubon committed scientific fraud by fabricating a fake species of eagle that helped launch his career. In light of Audubon’s actions, several local chapters of the National Audubon Society have renamed themselves, as has the society’s union. In March, though, the national society’s board of directors voted to keep the name, on the grounds that it would allow the organization to “direct key resources and focus towards enacting the organization’s mission.”

Would you call the Audubon society racist because it’s keeping his name?

At any rate, if you’re going to change an animal name because the person involved was “problematic,” I’d use Coyne’s Criteria for Renaming (also good for deciding when to take down statues, though I favor contextualizing them rather than removing them):

  1. Is the name given because of something good the person did?
  2. Was the person’s life a net good for the world’s well being?

If the answer to both of these is “yes,” you should keep the name. And if you’re giving a scientific name to a new species, the answers should both be “yes” as well.

b.) Most names were given by Europeans, who were both colonialists and also carried invasive species with them. 

For some scientists, the eponym problem is about more than the egregious misdeeds of a few individuals. As Europeans spread to other continents, they brought not only invasive species that displaced native ones but also invasive nomenclature that ousted long-standing native terms for plants and animals. In Africa, the scientific names of a quarter of local birds, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals are eponyms, mostly from Europe. On the biodiverse Pacific island of New Caledonia, more than 60 percent of plant eponyms honor French citizens. Countless species around the world have been named after European scientists whose travels were made possible by imperial ventures aimed at expanding territories or extracting natural resources. “We have romantic ideas of these explorers going around the world, seeing beautiful things, and naming them, and we forgot how they got there to begin with,” Natalia Piland, an ecologist at Florida International University, told me.

Such naming patterns still continue. Piland and her colleagues found that since 1950, 183 newly identified birds have been given eponyms, and although 96 percent of these species live in the global South, 68 percent of their names honor people from the global North. In 2018, the Rainforest Trust, an American conservation nonprofit, auctioned off the rights to name 12 newly discovered South American species, leading to a frog named after Greta Thunberg and a caecilian named after Donald Trump. (A similar auction in 2005 landed a Bolivian monkey with the name of the internet casino GoldenPalace.com.) The beloved British naturalist David Attenborough has more than 50 species named after him, most of which live in Africa, Asia, Australia, and South America. That is not to begrudge Attenborough, Thunberg, or Trump; having a species named after you is widely considered a great honor, but globally, such honorees are still disproportionately people of European descent—a perpetuation of colonialism through taxonomy.

This of course doesn’t take into account that European name-giving may hold for scientific names but not for common ones, which often differ from culture to culture. As Ernst Mayr discovered when he tried to correlate bird names in New Guinea with scientific names, New Guinea birds are given names in New Guinea languages.

c.) Animal names ignore indigenous people who may live in the same area. 

Some scientists have proposed reinstating Indigenous names for animals wherever possible. But many species live across the territories of different Indigenous groups, or migrate across national or continental divides, making it hard to know whose names to prioritize. And if native names are applied without native consultation, the result can smack of cultural appropriation. Emma Carroll from the University of Auckland took on both challenges in naming a recently identified species of beaked whale. Carroll spent a year consulting Indigenous groups in countries where the new whale’s specimens had been found. In South Africa, the Khoisan Council suggested using the word //eu//’eu, which means “big fish” and is now immortalized in the scientific name Mesoplodon eueu. For the common name, Carroll asked a Māori cultural expert in New Zealand to draw up a shortlist, which she then ran past a local council. She eventually named the creature “Ramari’s beaked whale” after Ramari Stewart—a Māori whale expert whose work was pivotal in identifying the new species, and who has been “working to bridge Western science and mātauranga [Maori knowledge] for decades,” Carroll told me. Fittingly, ramari also means “a rare event” in the Māori language, and beaked whales are famously elusive.

But this raises the issue, as Yong says, of the re-namers engaging in cultural appropriation! And if you rename an animal after a local indigenous person, such as “Tamanend’s bottlenose dolphin” (named after a Native American), that raises another problem: that of “ownership, as if an individual could lay claim to an entire species—a fundamentally colonial way of thinking, no matter whether the honoree is an Indigenous woman or a European man.”  Yes, the woke can sniff out problems within problems within problems.

Yong then floats what I think is his own favored solution:

By that logic, the issue with eponyms isn’t that some of them honor people who did vile things. It’s that animals shouldn’t be named after people at all.  That is:

d.) Naming animals after people “dishonors the organism”.  I’m not kidding.

Others argue that, more importantly, the act of honoring a person through an organism’s name dishonors the organism itself. It treats animals and plants as inanimate objects like buildings or streets, constructed and owned by humans, instead of beings with their own lives and histories. “It doesn’t sit well with me to think of an individual human becoming the signifier of an entire species,” Piland said. A more descriptive name, meanwhile, is a chance to tell a creature’s story. Joseph Pitawanakwat, an Anishinaabe educator, notes that many of his people’s bird names are layered with meaning—onomatopoeias that mimic calls, and descriptions of habitat and behavior, all embedded in a single word that could have been coined only through a deep understanding of the animals. English names could be similarly descriptive: Thick-billed longspur tells you something about the bird that might help you recognize it in a way that McCown’s longspur does not.

Now I agree that if you’re going to change a common name, perhaps you should do something that describes the animal, though sometimes that’s hard. But changing names because it “dishonors the organism” is a claim that carries little weight with me. It’s a descriptor, and the organism doesn’t care what it’s called. Nor does this argument change anything substantive: renaming Audubon’s warbler will not lead to more intensive appreciation of the bird, more effort to conserve of the bird, nor draw more diverse people into birding. Renaming pretends to be “inclusive”, but it doesn’t clearly foster inclusion. This is one of the issues with the whole endeavor: it’s basically performative virtue signaling, and changing names, an easy job, is a way to signal your virtue without having to do very much. That’s why people are keener on changing animal names than doing the hard work of conserving the organism.

One more issue before I sum up. Pape, the ICZN head, is not allowed to change scientific names because of the reasons I gave, but his quote is still ambiguous:

But, though [Pape] argues that set names are important for allowing scientists to unambiguously communicate about the organisms they study, Pape also admits that “it’s strange that we keep talking about stability when we keep changing names.” Scientific names change frequently, when a species is reclassified or split into several new ones. They can also change because scientists uncover an alternative name that was assigned first and then forgotten, or because they violate Latin grammar. There are also routes for changing scientific names through societal force of will. Pape cites the case of Raymond Hoser, an Australian amateur herpetologist who has assigned hundreds of new names to questionably defined species and genera of reptiles—often on shaky scientific grounds, usually in his own self-published journal, and in many cases honoring his family members and pets. Other taxonomists are simply refusing to use his names; if that continues, “it might be possible for the ICZN to rule that those names should not be used,” Pape told me.

According to the ICZN, though, changes  in scientific names can occur only under those specific circumstances, which are not that common. Importantly, many of the names that get changed under these circumstances keep the eponym, which is usually the species name and not the genus name. If Audubon’s warbler were found, for example, to comprise several species, one of them would still be named after Audubon. Reclassification usually involves changing the genus name if it’s changed at all, not the species name. And if a species is found to have been described earlier under a different name, then the rules mandate that the older one be the valid name, regardless of whether it is named after a bad person.

As for cases like Hoser, these are very rare, and aren’t worth discussing here: zoologists and ultimately the ICZN decide if they’re kosher.  But note that the rules do not mandate that scientific names be changed for any of the four reasons given above. They are changed only to clear up taxonomic errors, misclassifications, or in light of further biological knowledge..

To sum up, Yong lays out the case for changing common names (without giving opponents a say, because we’re too old!), but fails to seriously tackle the huge issue of changing scientific names. In fact, under current rules of nomenclature, they cannot be changed for political or ideological reasons

Here are a few arguments for retaining common names, though, as I said, I’m not all that opposed to changing them, except that it’s laborious and also creates certain confusion in the literature.

a.) It is largely performative, doing little except to flaunt the virtue of the renamers. It’s an easy way to pretend to effect social change.

b.) It doesn’t effect much social change. This drive is largely done by privileged people who think they are doing something good for the world, but really, do you think the world would be a better place if every species named after a person (or only a “bad” person) were changed? Would bigotry be palpably eroded?

c.) Changing common names does cause confusion in communication, though not as much as changing the scientific name would.

d.) Who gets to decide which names are good and which are bad?  Is “auduboni” a bad species name but “washingtonii” not? After all, both men kept slaves!  At any rate, there’s no “official” list of common names, though the American Ornithological Society keeps a list of common names. And renamings are still ignored.  I know people, for example, who still use the term “gypsy moth” out of continuity in the literature, even though, because it was considered bigoted, the creature been renamed the “spongy moth.”

In the end, the renaming of birds and other animals is one of the more striking cases of performative wokeness that I know of. As I said repeatedly, I don’t much care if common names are changed, but you can’t monkey around with the name of the beetle Anophthalmus hitleri (yes, named after Adolf), for it’s a scientific name.  And really, is renaming a beetle now bearing Hitler’s name going to get rid of neo-Nazism or racism? Will it suddenly bring a flood of Jews into entomology—Jews who avoided the field because it contained a beetle named after Hitler? I doubt it.

Yong is an excellent science writer—one of my favorites—but I can’t let it go by when he slips up—as I think he did here. He should have given the article more balance and talked to the opponents of renaming (who might have chosen anonymity!). And, most important, he fails to recognize the reason why the ICZN will not bow to ideological pressure to change animal names. 

h/t: Susan, Phil

Famous biologist Ernst Mayr about to be heaved into the dumpster by the Society of Systematic Biologists

January 6, 2022 • 9:15 am

This really peeved me when it came to my attention, for the man up for cancellation—it’s not fully settled yet—was someone I knew, a a scientific hero of mine, and one of the great evolutionary biologists of the 20th century. I am speaking of Ernst Mayr. Further, there are NO grounds for effacing his name from an award—as proposed by the once-venerable Society of Systematic Biologists (SSB)—save that he was a white man. That’s it. He was not a racist—in fact, he fought for equality for all and repudiated racism (see below). Nor did he, as far as I’m aware, ever say anything “problematic”.  His only sin was his pallid skin.

For this (there are dark hints that he said “problematic” things, but these aren’t identified in the SSB’s statement), the Society—partly founded by Mayr—is proposing to eliminate Mayr’s name from the Ernst Mayr Award, given annually to the best student paper presented at the SSB’s annual meeting (by the way, Mayr also endowed that award and left a sum in his will to keep funding it.) This makes it quadruply shameful that the SSB is voting whether to cancel him. The good news is that the members’ vote hasn’t yet been taken, and it requires two-thirds of the membership to take his name off the award. I’m hoping the SSB members are not such sheeple that they will vote for this misbegotten proposal.

Forgive me if I seem excessively steamed—after all, nothing permanent has yet been done—but Mayr was a good man, a superb biologist, and the man whose writings, more than anything else, helped inspire me to go into evolutionary biology and, in particular, the study of speciation. His early books, including Systematics and the Origin of Species (1942) and its large update, Animal Species and Evolution (1963) are classics of the genre, and helped bring to the attention of biologists that the origin of species was not only a problem that Darwin really didn’t solve, but also proposed a way to solve it (the “Biological Species Concept” combined with geographic isolation of populations, or “allopatry”).  His work, combined with two charismatic undergraduate teachers at William & Mary (Jack Brooks and Bruce Grant) are what got me started working on speciation and its genetics, summarized in my 2009 book with Allen Orr, Speciation. I knew Mayr at Harvard and spoke with him occasionally, always finding him strongly opinionated (and sometimes wrong) but also polite and courtly. But he was wrong in matters of biology, not morality or ethics.

When Mayr turned 90, the Society for the Study of Evolution, which he also founded, put out a special issue devoted to him, and I was honored to write the chapter assessing his contributions to speciation (free access here  or here). And when he died at 100, I wrote his obituary for Science, which you can see here. If you want a short take on how important he was, I’d suggest reading the Science obituary.  You can read about his contributions to systematics here; I’m not as familiar with them as with his contributions to evolutionary biology, for I’ve never done systematics. Yet, as I said, he helped found the very society that proposes to erase him and the award that he endowed, also endangered.

The SSB announcement here, which I’ve reproduced below, notes that the Council (governing body) of the SSB voted to put to their members a proposal to eliminate the name of the award for the best student paper at the annual meeting. The proposal, as you’ll see, is to change its name from “The Ernst Mayr Award in Systematic Biology” to “The Outstanding Student Presentation Award in Systematic Biology.” That’s a nameless generic award, and I wonder if the proposers feel any shame at removing from the award the name of the man who funded it, and is still funding it. I consider that unethical as well as dumb.

So, here’s the announcement, and I’ve put my own comments and questions in bold brackets within the text.

SSB Council Review of the Mayr Award and Award Names

In the summer of 2020, the SSB Council began a discussion about potentially renaming the Ernst Mayr Award in Systematic Biology at the request of society members [How many society members asked? A handful? A lot? Does it take more than one?]. Since then, the SSB leadership have been working in conjunction with the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Committee to learn more about the origin of named awards and their representation of the diverse membership within the society. Renaming the award is one step toward greater inclusivity within the society, as named awards often lead to feelings of exclusion among those who are members of underrepresented groups whose scientific contributions continue to remain unrecognized. [ This keeps being asserted, but how true is it? Do minority students or women truly feel hurt and excluded at getting an “Ernst Mayr” award, or even by the existence of that award? That sounds unbelievable. If this is the case, though, then they should rename the Nobel Prizes, for Alfred Nobel endowed these most famous science awards in his will, and he was an Old White Man. Further, one must balance the degree of “hurt feelings”, if any, against perpetuating the memory of the name of Mayr and of his legacy. Students are already beginning to forget who he was, even as they labor in fields he started.] At a council meeting following Virtual Evolution 2021, the Council voted to propose to all members an award name change, in conjunction with other actions intended to better recognize SSB’s history and legacy. [I consider that last statement bogus, as how better to recognize the SSB’s legacy than to give an award in its founder’s name?]

The SSB Council proposes to rename the Ernst Mayr Award in Systematic Biology to the Outstanding Student Presentation Award in Systematic Biology. Our scientific community is more diverse than the cohort of early scientists with recognized contributions to systematics and science generally [True: this is part of the history of the field, indeed of society, which has become more inclusive.] Many current members do not see themselves reflected in awards that bear the names of these early scientists and can feel excluded as potential recipients as a result. In a field whose composition still does not reflect global human diversity, having an award named after a particular individual reinforces that members with other identities are outsiders. [Here we see the key to why this is being proposed: members don’t “see themselves reflected in the award”, and what they mean is  “in sex and race”. Women, as they imply, are too fragile to bear having an award named after a man, and minorities too fragile to accept an award named after a white person. They won’t say this explicitly, but it’s clear that this is what the proposal means. Are they saying that NO award should be named after any person? For, after all, if an award is named after anyone, it will limit severely the number of people who can “identify” with that person.] By proposing this name change, we hope to address this specific barrier [Is it a barrier? What is the evidence?] to making our society more inclusive and welcoming. [This, to me, is the most ludicrous part of the proposal. It is simply performative wokeness. Does the SSB council think that the award has actually hindered people from going into systematic biology? If so, then they have a low opinion of the ambition of future systematic biologists! Nobody thinks that blacks, women, Hispanics, and so on will come pouring into the SSB once the award is renamed. The proposal is performative wokeness alone, for it will accomplish nothing to promote racial or sexual equality. Rather, it is simply a big virtue signal meant to say, “Look how much we care about the oppressed!”] We, the SSB council, are made up of a diverse group of people who don’t all view Mayr in the same light. [Okay, what is the disagreement, then? I don’t think any two biologists view Mayr in the same light! If there’s controversy about his statements or activities, tell us what it is!] This proposal is not intended to cast judgement on the legacy of Ernst Mayr, who was a prolific and profound scholar of evolutionary biology and a dedicated champion of students, nor are we intending to defend the contents of his writings which some find problematic.[WHICH writings? How are they problematic? Note that they don’t list any, and I believe that whatever is considered “problematic” is at best trivial. Or perhaps it was Mayr’s controversial–and probably erroneous–views on founder-effect speciation?] We are grateful for Mayr’s generous gifts to our society, which created the endowment that allows us to support student research today. [Not grateful enough to keep his name on the prize! And of course this is a statement about the legacy of Ernst Mayr, which is that his mere name makes minority systematic biologists uncomfortable.]

The Council sees preservation of the society’s history and increasing diversity, equity and inclusion as synergistic endeavors toward the improvement of our community. The proposed change continues our history of becoming more inclusive over time: for example, in the 1990s we changed from the Society for Systematic Zoology to the Society of Systematic Biologists (and changed the journal name as well) to welcome members of our community who do not study animals. [Inclusivity of fields is not nearly as invidious as removing someone like Mayr’s name on the grounds of “inclusivity”. The only people who would be convinced by this analogy are those who aren’t thinking very clearly and are blinded by ideology.] Thus, SSB President Laura Kubatko has acted on the recommendation of the DEI Committee to form a new committee, the SSB Legacy Committee, that will be tasked with creating accessible content about our society’s history (e.g., as a section on our website). The formation of this committee is intended as a way to acknowledge the contributions of past members to the existence of the society and to the field broadly. In this way, the legacy of the society may be understood by our membership more comprehensively than is possible through named awards, and we have the opportunity to celebrate the many people of various backgrounds who have made systematic biology what it is today. [Does this mean that no award should bear a name, for that’s the logical conclusion of the argument they make above, or will they rename awards after members of minority groups?]

Because the award is named in our Constitution, the name can only be changed by a formal amendment to the Constitution. Following the procedure outlined in our Constitution, the SSB Council thus voted in August 2021 to propose an Amendment to the Constitution to be submitted to the SSB Membership for a vote. The Constitution specifies that the proposed Amendment will pass if at least 2/3 of the members vote in favor. This issue will be presented to the membership on the Spring 2022 ballot. The proposed amendment is shown below.

Proposed amendment
Original text:
1) The Ernst Mayr Award in Systematic Biology given for the outstanding paper presented at the Annual Meeting by a student member of the Society or a member who has received the Ph.D. degree within the last 15 months;
New text:
1) The Outstanding Student Presentation Award in Systematic Biology given for the outstanding paper presented at the Annual Meeting by a student member of the Society or a member who has received the Ph.D. degree within the last 15 months.

So, first, if you’re a member of the SSB, you must vote in the Spring 2022 election. If you’re not, lobby your systematist friends to vote.

I’m not even going to be neutral enough to tell you to “vote your conscience”. For unless you want to change science from a way to understand the universe to a misguided and ineffectual way to achieve Social Justice, there is only one rational way to vote: against the defenestration of Mayr. I know that you may be thinking, “Surely more than a third of members will oppose the name change,” but I wouldn’t be so sure about that. After all, more than half the members of the SSB Council voted for this ludicrous proposal.

I end by trying to suss out what statements of Mayr are considered “problematic”. I’ve read a LOT of what he wrote, though I haven’t read his bird work, and I know of nothing that is “problematic.” In cases like this one, “problematic” is a euphemism for “racist”, but Mayr was not a racist, but an egalitarian!

Here’s one example. In 1951 UNESCO issued a statement “The Race Concept: Results of an Inquiry,” which analyzes the biology of race and declared no substantive differences among races that would support racism. The UNESCO document was apparently disseminated to biologists and their reactions are given in the report itself. Here’s the take Ronald Fisher, who already has been cancelled, making pretty racist criticisms of the Report:

. . .Darlington, Fisher, Genna and .Coon are frankly opposed to the Statement.

Sir Ronald Fisher has one fundamental objection to the Statement, which, as he himself says, destroys the very spirit of the whole document. He believes that human groups differ profoundly “in their innate capacity for intellectual and emotional development” and concludes from this that the “practical international problem is that of learning to share the resources of this planet amicably with persons of materially different nature, and that this problem is being obscured by entirely well intentioned efforts to minimize the real differences that exist”.

. . . Fisher’s attitude towards the facts stated in this paragraph is the same as Muller’s and Sturtevant’s, but this is how he puts his objections: “As you ask for remarks and suggestions, there is one that occurs to me, unfortunately of a somewhat fundamental nature, namely that the Statement as it stands appears to draw a distinction between the body and mind of men, which must, I think, prove untenable. It appears to me unmistakable that gene differences which influence the growth or physiological development of an organism will ordinarily pari passu influence the congenital inclinations and capacities of the mind. In fact, I should say that, to vary conclusion (2) on page 5, ‘Available scientific knowledge provides a firm basis for believing that the groups of mankind differ in their innate capacity for intellectual and emotional development,’ seeing that such groups do differ undoubtedly in a very large number of their genes.”

In contrast, Mayr approved of the UNESCO report and its conclusions. This is a direct quote from page 18:

Mayr also hopes that “the authoritative Statement prepared by Unesco will help to eliminate the pseudo-scientific race conceptions which have been used as excuses for many injustices and even shocking crimes”. “I applaud and wholeheartedly endorse [it],” he writes, adding: “It cannot be emphasized too strongly that all so-called races are variable populations, and that there is often more difference between extreme individuals of one race than between certain individuals of different races. All human races are mixtures of populations and the term “pure race” is an absurdity. The second important point which needs stressing is that genetics plays a very minor part in the cultural characteristics of different peoples. . . . The third point is that equality of opportunity and equality in law do not depend on physical, intellectual and genetic identity. There are striking differences in physical, intellectual and other genetically founded qualities among individuals of even the most homogeneous human population, even among brothers and sisters. No acknowledged ethical principle exists which would permit denial of equal opportunity for reason of such differences to any member of the human species.”

You can’t get more egalitarian and antiracist than that! And this was Mayr’s view on race.  Is this PROBLEMATIC???  Is the SSB willing to die on the mountain of this statement? Why would it not be an honor to get an award named after a man of sound moral views and superb scientific accomplishment?

STEM disciplines are falling all over each other in this genre of performative wokeness. I hope the SSB comes to its senses and does the right thing.

Here’s a rare photo of Mayr in middle age; he’s usually shown as a young man during his New Guinea expedition or as an old man (remember, he lived 100 years).

A large new salamander from the United States

December 18, 2018 • 11:20 am

by Greg Mayer

Sean Graham, Richard Kline, David Steen, and Crystal Kelehear have just published a description of a new species of salamander from the Gulf Coast of Alabama and Florida (reference at bottom). It’s quite a handsome beast, with bold reticulations and an almost decorative frill of external gills.

(From paper): A) Siren reticulata paratype specimen captured in Okaloosa County, Florida. (B) Location of Siren reticulata captured in 2009 by D. Steen and M. Baragona. (C) The type locality of Siren reticulata, Walton County, Florida.


Photo by Pierson Hill, from the New York Times; another photo by Hill is in the paper. If it’s the same animal photographed by Hill for the paper, this is not one of the paratypes.

It’s a species of siren, a type of permanently aquatic salamander that lacks hind legs and has three pairs of external gills. There are, with this new one, three species known in the genus Siren, all from the southeastern United States. The new species stands out for three reasons.

First, it’s a genuinely new discovery, not just elevating to species status a previously known subspecies or population of some other species. The new species, Siren reticulata, is at least broadly sympatric with both the Lesser Siren (Siren intermedia) and the Greater Siren (Siren lacertina), and the authors’ genetic analysis show it to be markedly distinct from both of these species. It thus seems to be a “good” biological species. Much of the “increase” in biodiversity these days, especially in biologically well-known regions such as North America, comes from changes in taxonomic rank, not actually finding a previously unknown form.

Second, it’s awfully large for a previously unknown species: around 60 cm total length, and that’s based on a sample of just 7 individuals used in the description. Again, this stands out because the beast is from North America, where there are lots of new species of small animals to be described, but not so many largish ones. It’s bigger than the Lesser Siren, but not as big as the Greater Siren (which gets up to a record size of about 1 m in total length). Of course, it’s likely that the new siren grows larger than can be judged from just 7 specimens.

Third, this is a sort of success story for cryptozoology. The “leopard eel” was at first only hinted at, but eventually was shown to exist. The existence of it was first intimated by Robert Mount, who, in his The Reptiles and Amphibians of Alabama (1975), had this to say about a siren he included in his discussion of the Greater Siren:

A siren tentatively assigned to S. lacertina collected in the Fish River in Baldwin County does not conform [to the description above]. This specimen, which has 39 costal grooves and is 520 mm long, has a silvery gray ground color. The back, sides, and tail are profusely marked with conspicuous dark gray spots and vermiculations. The venter is unmarked. Additional specimens from that locality, as well as some localities to the east, will be needed to determine whether the specimen on hand is correctly assigned to species.

A few other specimens over the years apparently sparked some interest, but it was not till Steen caught one in 2009 in Florida that serious work began, and now Graham, Steen, and colleagues have been able to confirm that there is a new species, and Mount’s suspicious specimen belongs to it—so good on ya, mates, to Graham and colleagues for solving a decades-old mystery! The case fits a classic cryptozoological scenario: a new animal is reported on insufficient evidence, stories and reports continue to come in, and then, finally, proof is brought to light—in this case, 7 salamanders, along with their attendant morphological and genetic data. I’m not sure if cryptozoologists will embrace this discovery, as they prefer their ‘cryptids’ (unknown animals) to be big, but it is big for a salamander, and a big one for the U.S.

As a common name, the authors propose “Reticulated Siren”, dismissing the name “Leopard Eel”, by which it was apparently known informally (perhaps when it was still just a cryptid). (Large aquatic salamanders with reduced legs are often called “eels” in the southern U.S.) If “Leopard Eel” is a genuine vernacular name, then I would suggest that that name be used. Common names should be just that: part of the language used by people who actually know the species. Standard English names (which many birders and some herpers have a passion for) are fine, but they should not be mistaken for common or vernacular names. Perhaps “Leopard Siren” would be an appropriate middle ground to serve as both type of name.


Graham S.P., R. Kline, D. A. Steen, and C. Kelehear. 2018. Description of an extant salamander from the Gulf Coastal Plain of North America: the Reticulated Siren, Siren reticulata. PLOS ONE 13(12): e0207460.

Mount, R.H. 1975. The Reptiles and Amphibians of Alabama. Auburn University Agricultural Experiment Station, Auburn, Alabama.

Duhhh. . . . Guardian touts a “new” finding that thylacines are more closely related to kangaroos than to dingos

December 11, 2017 • 1:15 pm

Below is the headline of a new science piece in the Guardian (click on screenshot to read it), reporting on a paper that was just published in Nature. I haven’t read that paper, so I won’t comment on it; rather, I’ll comment on the science writing, which in this case is abysmal. It’s sensationalistic, misleading, and, sadly, the scientists whose work is reported appear complicit in the sensationalism.

But what’s a thylacine? It’s a fascinating creature: a carnivorous Australian/Tasmanian marsupial (Thylacinus cynocephalus) that looked like a dog. It’s been called the “Tasmanian wolf” or, because it was striped on the back, the “Tasmanian tiger.” The species lived until recently, going extinct in Australia about 2000 years ago (sightings are reported in the 1830s, though), and on Tasmania until 1930, when the last known one was shot. (Sightings are still reported there, but none have been credible.) Here are two from a Washington, D.C. zoo in 1906:

Why did they go extinct? Certainly hunting was a major factor, but others that have been suggested are disease, habitat loss, and competition with dingos. Dingos are the descendants of wild canids introduced into Australia, and are, unlike thylacines, placental mammals. The physical resemblance between the thylacine and a canid is an independent evolution of form, or an evolutionary convergence. 

There are two results given the headline: “genetic weakness” of the thylacine and “the closer relationship of the thylacine to kangaroos than dingos”. We’ll take these in order.

First, the “weakness”, which I take to mean “lack of genetic variation”, which could make a species more susceptible to extinction because it can’t evolve in a way that would help it cope to new environments or conditions like disease. (Evolution requires genetic variation.) The paper reports a genomic sequencing of a preserved, 106-year old thylacine. Since I haven’t read the paper, the lack of variation in the species would have to have been deduced by finding that this individual was largely invariant in its genome: that both copies of every gene were more similar than in other species.  But earlier work in 2012, based on several thylacines, already told us that they were largely invariant in their mitochondrial DNA. So this conclusion isn’t new.

Did the thylacine go extinct because it was genetically depauperate, though? We have no idea, and the Guardian even suggests it didn’t:

“But what we found is that the population declined about 70,000 years ago, long before it was isolated meaning it probably had more to do with changes in the climate back then.”

While overhunting was “without doubt” responsible for the animal’s extinction in 1936, Pask said its genetic weakness would have made it more susceptible to disease had it survived.

Yes, and if my aunt had testes she’d be my uncle. What we have here is pure speculation. It does appear that thylacines were genetically depauperate, but whether that played a role in their extinction is unknown. After all, they were shot willy-nilly.

But the worst part is the second “conclusion”: the breathless report that thylacines are more closely related to kangaroos than to dingos, with a quote from associate professor Andrew Pask from the University of Melbourne (my emphasis):

The researchers also found that despite its similarities to the Australian dingo, the thylacine’s DNA actually has more in common with the kangaroo.

Scientists consider the thylacine and the dingo as one of the best examples of what’s known as “convergent evolution”, the process where organisms that are not closely related independently evolve to look the same as a result of having to adapt to similar environments or ecological niches.

Because of their hunting technique and diet of fresh meat, their skulls and body shape became similar despite the Tasmanian tiger’s DNA having more in common with a kangaroo.

Pask said the genome showed the Tasmanian tiger was an “unbelievable” example of convergent evolution, because it proved how distant the two species were.

“Their similarities are absolutely astounding because they haven’t shared a common ancestor since the Jurassic period, 160m years ago,” he said.

For crying out loud, WE ALREADY KNEW THIS! Thylacines are marsupials, like kangaroos, and dingos are placentals, like dogs and most other mammals we know. They belong to different infraclasses of mammals (the next level below the class Mammalia), and their ancestors separated about 159 million years ago. In contrast, the thylacine and kangaroo last shared a common ancestor about 62 million years ago. We’ve known that this is a case of convergent evolution for decades, and no biologist would be surprised at the subheadline above. They’d say, like Greg, Matthew, and I did, “Yeah, so?”

You can attribute that subheadline, perhaps, to a nonbiologist interested in writing clickbait, but it appears that Dr. Pask is guilty for fostering some of this hype, for he knows full well that the relatedness and time data have been around for years.

As Greg said when we were discussing this piece (it was sent by Matthew Cobb), “Any scientist who can pretend, in order to garner press attention, that it’s a novel discovery that Tasmanian tigers are indeed marsupials should be shunned as a publicity-seeking charlatan.”


Whence the beaver? They’re kangaroo rats, not squirrels!

March 9, 2017 • 1:00 pm

Of course the title is clickbait, but it does express a new finding: that, among Rodentia (yes, beavers are rodents), whose phylogeny was till now a bit unclear, we now learn that beavers are more closely related to kangaroo rats than to squirrels. For a long time, beavers had been thought to be closely related to squirrels (the “sciurid rodents”) because of the similar arrangement of their masseter muscles—the muscles that close the jaw. Recently, there was some slight but not completely convincing evidence, however, that beavers may be more closely related to kangaroo rats: those cute hopping mice in the family Heteromyidae. (Heteromyids also include pocket mice, kangaroo mice, and spiny pocket mice.) The molecular evidence was based on a similar piece of DNA in beavers and heteromyids: a single “retrotransposon,” a “jumping gene” that moves around the DNA by being transcribed from its RNA and then stuck in different places in the genome.

So we have a muscle similarity coming up against a single molecular similarity. Well, a new paper in Nature Scientific Reports by Liliya Doronina et al. (reference below; free download), using a lot more molecular data, shows that the kangaroo-rat affinity wins. This is based on a phylogeny constructed from both DNA sequences as well as the presence and position of retrotransposons.

It turns out that beavers, compared to other groups of rodents, share seven new retrotransposons with the kangaroo rat, and none with other groups of rodents. This shows that beavers and kangaroo rats are monophyletic: they have a common ancestor that is not a common ancestor with any other rodent. Below you can see what the new rodent phylogeny looks like, and you can also see, along the right, the similarity of the muscles between squirrels and beavers.

Note that they used the Eurasian beaver (Castor fiber), rather than its good old New World counterpart, the North American beaver (Castor canadensis). But that doesn’t matter, for the two species of beavers—there are only two and they diverged about 9 million years ago—are more closely related to each other than to kangaroo rats or any other rodent.

Before I give the reveal, here are the animals:

A Eurasian beaver:

A North American beaver (much cuter!):

A kangaroo rat (Dipodomys sp.):

It turns out that a similar arrangement of the masseter muscle evolved three times independently in rodents, so that’s not a good character to use for making evolutionary trees; it’s an “evolutionary convergence” that doesn’t tell us much about ancestry. DNA is much better, and here’s the final tree:

(From paper): 3,780 potential phylogenetically informative retroposons were extracted from the beaver reference assembly and projected onto sequence information of other rodent genomes and onto PCR-amplified orthologs from Anomaluromorpha. These newly revealed markers are shown as enlarged red balls. Previously identified phylogenetically diagnostic retroposon markers are indicated by black and two conflicting yellow balls. The two screening strategies and the resulting diagnostic presence/absence patterns are indicated for Castorimorpha and also the mouse-related clade. The myomorphous, sciurimorphous, and hystricomorphous zygomasseteric systems are illustrated to the right (blue and red lines show anterior parts of medial and lateral masseter, respectively; for details of zygomasseteric systems in rodents see Potapova27). The mandible types20 are noted: sciurognathous and hystricognathous. For the squirrel-related clade, only the zygomasseteric system of Sciuridae is presented. The rodent paintings were provided by Jón Baldur Hlíðberg.

At last we can rest easy, knowing that the beaver is not a close relative of the squirrel. The similarity of their muscle configuration undoubtedly comes from their similar habits of gnawing tough stuff, which led to a convergent arrangement of strong jaw muscles.

h/t: Matthew Cobb


Doronina, L., A. Matzke, G. Churakov, M. Stoll, A. Huge, and J. Schmitz. 2017. The beaver’s phylogenetic lineage illuminated by retroposon reads. Nature Scientific Reports 7, Article number: 43562 (2017) doi:10.1038/srep43562

PBS: How many species of giraffes are there?

November 2, 2016 • 8:30 am

A while back I discussed a paper in Current Biology by Julian Fennessy et al. . That paper used genetic analysis (the total genetic divergence among groups) to claim that there are actually four species of giraffe instead of a single species with nine subspecies. Using the Biological Species Concept (BSC), however, I argued that there was no objective basis for recognizing four distinct species on the basis of genetic distance and monophyly alone, for such recognition is purely subjective. How much genetic divergence between geographically isolated groups is necessary before we call them “separate species”? Any decision must necessarily be subjective, since no cut-off point of genetic distance is biologically meaningful.

I concluded that although the press gave the Fennessy et al. paper a ton of publicity, there’s no good reason to recognize four instead of one species of giraffe so long as all the “species” are geographically isolated from one another. (Greg Mayer and Matthew Cobb, my biology co-writers here, agreed.)

Now, mirabile dictu, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in the U.S. has taken up the issue, and I had several conversations about speciation with writer Becca Cudmore, who proved to be one of the more inquisitive and savvy science journalists I’ve encountered. And, miracle of miracles again, she gives substantial publicity to the idea that giraffes may not really comprise four species.

In her PBS NatureNow article “How many giraffe species are there, really?” Cudmore gives a good airing of the BSC and my take on the giraffes. The gist:

Unlike Coyne’s approach, the study used genetic differences to separate the giraffes. This is a method of defining species by their “phylogenetics,”or by their shared traits. In this case, Goethe University researcher Axel Janke found genetic markers, such as mutations, that were common among certain giraffes and not shared by the others. This suggested to him that there has been very little gene sharing between the groups.

But by Coyne’s definition, this doesn’t prove that giraffes are reproductively isolated. “The only way to show whether or not they are separate would be to move the wild giraffes into the same area and see if they produce a fertile offspring,” he says. While the different subspecies are known to hybridize in captivity, there is very little evidence of this in the wild.

“The Biological Species Concept is more meaningful because it helps to explain one of evolutionary biology’s most profound questions”: Why is nature discontinuous? he says—why is it not all “one big smear” that can exchange genes?

And so on. There is of course some pushback:

Still, with what we know about hybrids between species in the wild, Janke calls Coyne’s approach too “pure” and says that it’s going out-of-date.

Janke is just wrong here. (I have no idea what he means by “too pure”!) The fact that some species exchange genes is not a serious problem for a concept based on reproductive isolation between entire genomes, and in fact most closely related species do not exchange genes. The cases of gene exchange between biological species, while widely publicized, are not the rule but the exception. (See Coyne & Orr, Speciation, for the evidence.)

Most tellingly, virtually every paper I’ve seen on the process of speciation—that is, on the ways that new species come into being—deals not with the accumulation of genetic distance per se, but on the development of reproductive barriers that eventually prevent populations from exchanging genes. That’s a tacit admission of the importance of the BSC.

I think the impetus behind naming more giraffe species is largely connected with conservation, for with more named species we can put more species on the endangered list and save more of the phenotypic and genetic diversity in what was formerly one species. But while that may be an admirable goal, it should not be a motivation for recognizing species in nature.

It may not be a coincidence that Fennessy works for the Giraffe Conservation Foundation. Cudmore notes this:

Whether one, four, or six species, giraffes have experienced a 40 percent plummet in population over the past 15 years. They’re currently listed as a species of “least concern” by the IUCN [International Union for Conservation of Nature] and unlike alarm bells ringing for Africa’s elephants, gorillas, and rhinos amid the poaching crisis, they receive relatively little attention.

and the press release for the paper gives a quote from Fennessy:

“With now four distinct species, the conservation status of each of these can be better defined and in turn added to the IUCN Red List,” said study co-author Julian Fennessy of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation in a release. For example, said Fennessy, there are now less than 4,750 Northern giraffes and fewer than 8,700 reticulated giraffes in the wild. “As distinct species, [this] makes them some of the most endangered large mammals in the world.”

This makes me suspect that behind the “splitting” of giraffes is a conservationist motivation, not an attempt to partition out nature in biologically and evolutionarily meaningful ways.

(from PBS article) A recent study proposed that giraffes are actually comprised of four main species (from left to right): reticulated, northern, southern and Masaai.

The exciting “new phylum” of Dendrogramma turns out to be an old one

June 8, 2016 • 8:45 am

Time for a correction. On September 7, 2014, I put up a post about a weird new creature, Dendrogramma, two species of which were dredged up from the deep seas of Australia. Here’s one of them:


Thse species, which had stalks and inflexible disks, weren’t considered members of existing phyla like ctenophores (comb jellies) because, as the original paper (Just et al., reference and link below) noted, they lack features present in other similar phyla (my emphasis in this original quote):

Dendrogramma shares a number of similarities in general body organisation with the two phyla, Ctenophora and Cnidaria, but cannot be placed inside any of these as they are recognised currently. We can state with considerable certainty that the organisms do not possess cnidocytes, tentacles, marginal pore openings for the radiating canals, ring canal, sense organs in the form of e.g., statocysts or the rhopalia of Scyphozoa and Cubozoa, or colloblasts, ctenes, or an apical organ as seen in Ctenophora. No cilia have been located. We have not found evidence that the specimens may represent torn-off parts of colonial Siphonophora (e.g., gastrozooids). Neither have we observed any traces of gonads, which may indicate immaturity or seasonal changes. No biological information on Dendrogramma is available.

DNA data, which would have been very useful, weren’t available for these specimens as they were collected in 1986 and fixed in formalin, which destroys DNA. While the authors didn’t name a new phylum, they suggested that these two species were indeed representatives of a new phylum, and that caused a lot of excitement. (New phyla aren’t often described.)

However, a 2015 expedition, whose results are described in a new paper in Current Biology (O’Hara et al., reference and free link below), produced RNA that could be sequenced. And that RNA shows that Dendrogramma isn’t a new phylum at all, but a siphonophore. Siphonophores are well known, an order that falls in the class Hydrozoa, itself in the phylum Cnidaria. Siphonophores are a bizarre group consisting of specialized individual animals that band together as a group to form a “superorganism”; the most familiar member is the Portuguese man of war, and here’s another, the pelagic (free swimming) siphonophore Marrus orthocanna:


As the new paper notes:

Siphonophores are bizarre pelagic colonial cnidarians in the class Hydrozoa. They are complex elongate or spherical organisms with specialised locomotive and feeding zooids, and a net of tentacles that can be extended to catch prey or attach to the seafloor. There are 175 described species, living in a range of habitats from the sea surface (e.g., Physalia physalis, the Portuguese Man O’War) to the deep-sea. Larger, more delicate species have been found mainly in the non-turbulent mesopelagic (300–1000 m) or bathypelagic zones (1000–3000 m).

The RNA analysis places Dendrogramma (probably just one species, not two), firmly in the siphonophores: it’s the red species in the phylogny below.

(From the paper): Dendrogramma in the tree of animal life. Dendrogramma bracts showing the (A) ‘discoides’ and (B) ‘enigmatica’ morphologies (scale bar = 10 mm). (C) Simplified phylogenomic tree of the Metazoa, predominantly derived from Whelan et al. 2015 [3], showing the position of Dendrogramma. Bootstrap values are 100% unless otherwise indicated.
Finally, the authors hypothesize that the “animal” Dendrogramma in the first picture above is really part of a more complex colony, and that the discoid things with stalks are cormidial bracts. The figure below shows those bracts in an entire siphonophore:

Screen Shot 2016-06-08 at 6.45.23 AM
Reference here.

So, move along folks, nothing more to see here. It’s just the usual advance of science, when we can better identify a bizarre form using DNA—or in this case, RNA. The earlier speculations that Dendrogramma may be a living remnant of the bizarre Ediacaran fauna that went extinct about 540 million years ago is no longer tenable.

h/t: Matthew Cobb, Casey Dunn



Just, J., R. M. Kristensen, and J. Olesen. 2014. Dendrogramma, New Genus, with Two New Non-Bilaterian Species from the Marine Bathyal of Southeastern Australia (Animalia, Metazoa incertae sedis) – with Similarities to Some Medusoids from the Precambrian Ediacara. PLOS One DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0102976

O’Hara, T. D. et al. 2016. Dendrogramma is a siphonophore. Current Biol. 26: R457-458.

The best interactive tree of life ever!

April 30, 2016 • 11:45 am

There’s a new, fractally constructed tree of life—with dates of the nodes—called OneZoom, and you must have a look at it. It was created by Dr. Yan Wong (who helped write The Ancestor’s Tale with Richard Dawkins) and Dr. James Rosindell; Luke Harmon contributed to the original idea.  The background and methods are explained on a page you can access by clicking on the magnifying glass at the lower right-hand corner of each searched page, or go here. It’s still a work in progress, and you can help the tree grow by sponsoring a leaf. The project is a charity, so your donations are tax free.

This just went up yesterday, and it’s already so extensive that, I’m told, if you printed the whole thing out it would be seven times larger than the solar system! I can’t vouch for that, but the fractal design is certainly impressive. Click on the screenshot below to get started, and remember these instructions:

Each leaf represents a different species and the branches show how they are related through evolution.

This tree of life is explored like you would a map, just zoom in to your area of interest to reveal further details.

To zoom you can use a touch screen (if you have one) or scroll up (zoom in) and down (zoom out) on your mouse or trackpad.

The search icon (second from the left) gives you an easy way to search or go straight to popular areas of the tree.

The location icon (third from the left) shows you which part of the tree of life you are looking at in the context of all life on earth.

If a leaf is coloured red this means the species it represents is known to be threatened with extinction.

Leaves with a dotted outline represent parts of the tree that are not filled out yet, if you sponsor one of the species in this part of the tree we will expand the tree to include your species.

Here’s one example you can use. Click to stop the zoom, and use your mouse or touchpad to get to clickable icons.

Screen Shot 2016-04-30 at 10.22.22 AM

For example, go to the mallard (here) to see the full capabilities of the system.

Finally, there’s a special version to accompany The Ancestor’s Tale, with all the common ancestors between Homo sapiens and other species numbered.

A species discovered on Flickr

August 15, 2012 • 1:53 pm

by Greg Mayer

A recent paper by Shaun Winterton, Hock Ping Guek, and Stephen Brooks describes a new species of lacewing (a type of insect in the order Neuroptera). There is nothing unusual in this– new species of animals, especially insects, are described all the time, and we have a few million more to go. What’s a bit unusual is how the species was recognized as new– a photograph of it was seen, more or less at random, by an entomologist while perusing Flickr.

One of the original photos of the new species. From ScienceShot http://news.sciencemag.org/sciencenow/2012/08/scienceshot-new-species-discover.html ; photo by Hock Ping Guek.

After recognizing the species as new, Winterton had Guek obtain another specimen, which was sent to Winterton for study; this specimen became the holotype for the new species.  A second specimen of the new species was found at the British Museum (Natural History) in London; this specimen is the paratype.

While quite a few new species are discovered during expeditions into the wild, many are also found in more prosaic circumstances, most often among sets of unidentified or misidentified specimens in museums (much like the paratype of the new lacewing). Many such undescribed species are already in museums. As a graduate student I recall seeing cabinets full of plaster-jacketed fossils in the basement of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, with labels like “Brazil 1936” (this was in the 80s), and I often wondered whether there might be any undescribed finds within. There’s a story I’ve heard, probably apocryphal, of a paleontologist who wrote a research grant proposing to fund an expedition to the basement of the British Museum, in order to examine the unsorted and unidentified specimens still awaiting study!

New species have also turned up in the pet trade. But my favorite example of a species discovered in an unusual place is the new species of lizard discovered by herpetologist Ngo Van Tri on his dinner plate (lizards- they’re not just for breakfast anymore); previous WEIT coverage here.

The lacewing discovery on Flickr has attracted a fair amount of attention. For one of the best accounts, go to Guek’s website, and also this piece on Science‘s website, or this Mashable video :

h/t: Daphne


Winterton, S.L., H.P. Guek, and S.J. Brooks. 2012. A charismatic new species of green lacewing discovered in Malaysia (Neuroptera, Chrysopidae):the confluence of citizen scientist, online image database and cybertaxonomy. Zookeys 214:1-11. (pdf)

Robert R. Sokal 1926-2012

May 1, 2012 • 11:11 am

by Greg Mayer

Robert R. Sokal,  Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolution at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, died at the age of 86 on April 9. During his long career he made distinguished contributions to evolutionary biology, systematics, human population genetics, and statistics, and generations of biologists have learned the principles and practices of statistical inference from the textbook he wrote with Jim Rohlf, Biometry (first edition 1969; fourth edition 2011). It was my privilege to be a student of his as an undergraduate at Stony Brook.

Robert R. Sokal in 1964 (courtesy the late Robert R. Sokal, via Joe Felsenstein, from Panda's Thumb)

Mike Bell has written a fine summary of his career at the Stony Brook Ecology & Evolution website, and Joe Felsenstein also has memorialized him at Panda’s Thumb (read the comments there, too). His life story was just as, if not more, interesting than his scientific career. Born into a Jewish family in Vienna, his family fled the Nazis in 1939, and found refuge in Shanghai, China. There, he attended college, and met his future wife, Julie. They came to the United States after the war ended, and remained here. Their story, known in general terms to all at Stony Brook, was chronicled in the book Letzte Zuflucht Schanghai: Die Liebesgeschichte von Robert Reuven Sokal und Julie Chenchu Yang by Stefan Schomann (click on the title for pictures from their time in China).

He will be perhaps best remembered for his contributions to, and insistence on, rigorous, quantitative reasoning in all aspects of biology, and in helping to usher in the age of computer-based analysis of biological data. In systematics, he pioneered quantitative techniques in both phylogeny reconstruction and the assessment of similarities and differences. The latter, which he pioneered with P.H.A. Sneath, became known as numerical taxonomy. Sokal and Sneath argued that knowledge of phylogeny was not fundamental for the classificatory purposes of taxonomy, which they thought should be based on overall resemblance (an approach known as phenetics). This approach to systematics has not prevailed, but the methods developed have proved of great value throughout biology, including phylogenetics. Although he thought evolutionary considerations should not rule taxonomy, he was always devoted to the study of evolutionary questions, first in aphids, then weevils (a word he consciously strove to avoid saying, because of how it came out from a native German-speaker– something like “veevels”), then man, among other subjects. Ironically, it was some of his opponents in the taxonomic debate (the so-called transformed cladists) who seemed to lose interest in evolution, embracing a sort of Platonic idealism as the basis for what were supposedly phylogenetic methods.

At Stony Brook, he was a towering figure, always impeccably dressed in coat and tie, and with an Old World dignity and reserve, the latter reflected in the fact that, unlike all the other professors, he was known to graduate students as “Dr. Sokal”, until the students had gotten their Ph.D.’s.  (There was a weekly Friday afternoon social event called the “BS”, which initials might have various meanings; officially it was the “Beer Social”, but it was rumored that it had those initials so that graduate students could refer to “Bob Sokal” before getting their degrees.) He was also superbly disciplined: on a number of occasions, a hallway conversation with him ended as we approached the elevators, because he always took the six floors of stairs down, as it was a way to regularly exercise without an interruption in his other work. But he was witty, open to discussion, and generous with his time, even for an undergraduate.

For first year Ecology & Evolution (and some other) graduate students, his biometry class was, quite literally, a rite of passage: successful students were inducted in to the “Loyal Order of Normal Deviates”, whose hymn was “Freedom By Degrees”. I was fortunate to be able to take the class as an undergraduate in my senior year (fall 1978). The second edition of Biometry was in the works, and we received the revised text in xerox. As much for his accomplishments as a researcher, he should also be recognized for his accomplishments as a teacher, both in the classroom, and through his book, which I found to be perhaps the most readable self-teaching tool I have ever encountered. I have used it (or it’s shorter version, Introduction to Biostatistics or “Baby Biometry”) for 20 years, and plan to keep using it in future classes. But last week it was my sad duty to tell my class that they are the last to use it while Dr. Sokal was alive.