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.

sn-lacewing.jpg
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

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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)