Sunday, 28 August 2011

Yet another estimate of the number of species on earth

This week in PLoS Biology, paper was published that estimates the number of species on earth being around the 8 million mark (give or take 2 million). This study takes a rarefaction-type approach, seeing how the rate of discovery of higher taxa is decreasing, and extrapolating from that to the species level, resulting in the figure of 8.7 million with an error range of 1.3 million.

This study is nothing new—there's been a number of estimates published over the past two decades that attempt to give a number to the total diversity of life on earth. While this one does appear to be a bit more robust, all these studies are based on various assumptions, and have given some very different figures. There seems to be some sort of convergence on the 10 million mark, but at the end of the day, we just don't know.

I guess the value of these papers are that they make public how far we have to go before we know the most basic thing about the other organisms that share the world with us. I still surprise people when I tell them my tales of discovering new species, the general belief being that we know essentially all there is to know about biology. However, unless there are some useful outcomes (e.g. increased funding or employment) from them, I view these papers with a certain cynicism. We know the task ahead of us is huge. It'd be great to be able to dive into it whole-heartedly and without needing to worry about the finances.

The paper did alert me to the World Taxonomist Database, a register of taxonomists from around the world and encompassing all taxa. The register gives contact details for each of the researchers in the database, as well as their taxonomic and geographic interests. It's a very handy resource.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Harvard's Caribbean Insects

Harvard University has has an interest and presence in the Caribbean for the past 150 years. As you can imagine, they've accumulated a lot of information on the biota of the region. They've made a sizable portion of their entomological knowledge available on the Caribbean Insects @ Harvard Entomology webpage, which is very nice of them. of particular interest are is the insect and plant database which you can search to find specimen information, or cool photos, like the image of Eurhinus festivus suturalis above. They've also made a whole lot of papers available through their taxonomic literature database, though unfortunately I was unable to access the database for some reason or another. Finally, they've made a number of posters of different taxa available, and very kindly sent me copies of their beautiful weevil and bark beetle ones. Good on them for creating all this cool stuff!

Mounting insect specimens in resin

I do a number of school presentations throughout the year, and am frequently asked if I can bring a few specimens to show the students. I am usually fairly loathe to do so, because of the fragility of most specimens, and the fact that the majority of my specimens are fairly small and therefore not especially exciting. Getting into work today, I saw a couple of resin-encased beetles I have received as gifts and had a brainwave. A quick search for instructions for how to do it revealed a number of tutorials. The one by Dalchem is useful, as is the guide provided by Complete Paints.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Rings and starships: A new shark embraces pop culture

I couldn't let this one go past without commenting on it. Today in Zootaxa, a description was published today that has references to two highly regarded elements of pop culture in the past 50 years. Gollum suluensis is a deep water shark from the Philippines whose name calls to mind Gollum from The Lord of the Rings, and Captain Sulu from Star Trek.

Before latin scholars point out that the -ensis suffix to the specific name refers to a place not to a person, I will clarify the specific name actually refers to the Sulu Sea. The generic name though is genuine. Established in 1973 by Leonard Compagno, the original description gives this explanation for the name:
Gollum (treated as a masculine noun), named for the antihero of J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy, to whom this shark bears some resemblane in form and habits.
Appropriately enough, the type species lurks around New Zealand.

Compagno LJV. 1973. Ctenacis and Gollum, two new genera of sharks (Selachii: Carcharhinidae). Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences 4(39): 257–272.

Last PR, Gaudiano JP. 2011. Gollum suluensis sp. nov. (Carcharhiniformes: Pseudotriakidae), a new gollumshark from the southern Philippines. Zootaxa 3002: 17-30.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Bohumiljania of New Caledonia

Today in Zootaxa a paper was published describing a number of species in the leaf beetle genus Bohumiljania from New Caledonia. Unfortunately, these species aren't going to win many prizes in the beauty stakes—they're all pretty nondescript, generic looking chrysomelids (See the picture of Bohmiljania aoupinie above). However, it belongs to a group (the Spilopyrinae), that displays a classical Gondwanan distribution pattern so it will be of interest to those people who are interested in the biogeography of New Caledonia. These beetles tend to be found in mountainous areas, and all known hostplants are in the Myrtaceae.

Incidentally, this is Zootaxa's 3000th issue. Pretty good going for a journal that celebrated its 10th birthday on 28 May this year.

Reid CAM, Beatson M. 2011. Revision of the New Caledonian endemic genus Bohumiljania Monrós (Coleoptera: Chrysomelidae: Spilopyrinae). Zootaxa 3000: 1-43. The full 6 MB article is here

Friday, 19 August 2011

Faraday Institute

Today I went to a talk by John Wood, based on the question "Is Man a Machine?". The talk in a nutshell discussed the uncertainty inherent in scientific measurement and human perception, the difference between man and machine being freedom, and that Christ sets us free to question, to investigate and to think.

He also directed us to the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, particularly the recently developed resource Test of Faith. This resource contains interviews with a number of leading scientists and theologians discussing the connections between the two fields and what they each can offer. In addition, the Faraday Institute website itself contains a large number of audio and video recordings of lectures discussing the interface between religion and science, and published documents on the subject also.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Invertebrate Macro Photography

Earlier this year, I met up with up-and-coming New Zealand nature photography Bryce McQuillan, who specialises in macro photography of invertebrates, particularly spiders. He puts the majority of his photos on Flickr and are well worth checking out.

Nature photographers are uniquely able to capture and portray the beauty and wonder of the natural world, and communicate it to the public in a way that can be broadly appreciated. The photos of the chalcidoid wasp above and the entomobryoid springtail below demonstrate this. These invertebrates are minute and incredibly beautiful. They are common and widespread, but their small size means that most people are not aware of them. The adage of one picture being worth 1000 words is particularly relevant in this situation.

Bryce's favorite group are spiders, which are particularly needy in the PR department. His photographs are able to capture their beauty and personality in such a way that even those who have no natural fondness for spiders are able to see beyond their "creepy-crawly" facade.

And this is why nature photographers are so important. Photos are an acccessable medium that people are easily able to understand and relate to. They are vital in the communication of the importance of biodiversity to the general public.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Book review: "Every Living Thing" by Rob Dunn

The subtitle of this book, "Man's Obsessive Quest to Catalog Life, from Nanobacteria to New Monkeys" caught my eye as I was looking through a book sale table. Being one of those who desires to contribute to this quest, I was delighted to find it. The book is an enjoyable overview of selected personalities whose lives and work define (for the author) the growth of our knowledge of biodiversity. Their stories are told with understanding and humour.

Starting with indigenous knowledge of biota, he introduces us to Linnaeus and Leeunwenhoek before describing modern scientists whose work has increased our appreciation for the diversity of life and expanded our understanding of its limits. The journey described is one that progresses from a focus on the species with greatest impact on daily life, to an understanding that "the rest of life does not revolve around us, nor is it like us (p. 247)". Comparing this discovery to the Copernican revolution, he argues that there remains the need for humility in assessing our knowledge and acheivements in discovering the natural world.

A major theme of the book is the obsessiveness that drives the scientists who are described. Being one who shares a similar outlook, I can sympathise with the men and women described. Indeed, I find myself wishing I could be (to a certain extent) in their shoes. However, I don't know if someone who doesn't have the same drive and desires would find the portrayals heroic or pathetic. As the author describes,
"If systematists are socializing, it means, to many of them, simply time they are not looking at the organisms they really love. The obscurity of the things on which taxonomists work does not lessen their focus. In fact, it may heighten it. To dig into their subject, they have to dig so far in, focus so intensely, that the rest of the world seems farther and farther away." (p. 101)
Balance is important, and many of the best taxonomists I've met understand that. But it is hard, when there's so many fascinating and beautiful creatures out there not to succumb to the temptation.

In summary, "Every Living Thing" is an accessible and enjoyable book that tells the story of a few of the personalities who have contributed to the classification and discovery of the organisms we share this world with.

Dunn, R. 2009. Every Living Thing. Man's Obsessive Quest to Catalog Life, from Nanobacteria to New Monkeys. HarperCollins, New York.

Monday, 15 August 2011

America's Cup revamped

The America's Cup World Series had it's first winner today, and of course I'm happy because Team New Zealand won it. I've always been keen on the America's Cup, but I dare say that the latest revamp of the competition has me excited. The boats look cool, go fast, and having them essentially identical between competitors makes the competition less an arms race and more a test of sailing. The Russell Coutts/Dean Barker rivalry is still In addition, having a lead up to the main event with regattas in multiple locations will make the competition more accessable and will hopefully diminish the (valid) criticisms that the America's cup was becoming merely a distraction for the rich. Sure, there's still an awful amount of money being spent on the water there, but at least it looks cooler now... It's been in Portugal for the last week or so, and is moving to Plymouth, UK in mid-September.

Watch the replay of the 14 August fleet race here

Monday, 8 August 2011

tlmgr not available for Ubuntu

One of the hardest things about LaTeX is the way it manages packages. Doing it manually is (in a word) annoying. When I was on windows I loved MikTeX for the ease by which it downloaded and installed extra packages, and I was disappointed when this functionality wasn't available on Ubuntu. Lately though I discovered that TeXlive had a similar package manager called tlmgr, and I started getting excited. When installing TeXlive though, I was dismayed to find that tlmgr did not work. A bit of a google search later I found that this was reason:
There is no way that a second package manager independent of the normal packaging infra structure (apt here, or rpm, or whatever) can work, because it will break the main system.

TeX Live Manager is currently only for system trees. THere is a patch in the dev repository for activating user mode, so that tlmgr can be used to manage TEXMFHOME, but it has not been worked on since quite some time (Norbert Preining on

I take this to mean that there's only room in Ubuntu-town for one package manager, and synaptic is it. This is fair enough I guess, but it is still unfortunate.

Norbert goes on to say "get your hands dirty and help coding!" Unfortunately, my perl is non-existent, so I'll have to give it a miss until such a time as I actually have some idea what I'm doing.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Quote: James Hannam on science and religion

One of the best quotes I've seen recently about the interface between science and religion. It's constructive and promotes dialogue, unlike a lot of the rhetoric that unfortunately gets more publicity.
"Nonetheless, today, science and religion are the two most powerful intellectual forces on the planet. Both are capable of doing enormous good, but their chances of doing so are much greater if they can work together. The award of the Templeton Prize to Lord Rees is a small step in the right direction."

James Hannam on the "Soapbox Science" blog.

Pressing plants

Weevils feed on plants, with many species being very picky about the plants they eat. These host interactions are very important for understanding the ecology of both the weevils and the plants. When collecting therefore, it is important that the plants from which weevils have been collected are identified and noted. Therefore, as a weevil guy, it is important that I have a fair understanding of plant identification.

A key aspect of the process is knowing the proper way to collect, preserve and label plant specimens. Searching the internet has revealed good guides on the University of Florida Herbarium webpage and a PDF produced by the Herb Society of America.

It's not too arduous—pressing plant material can be done by placing the material under a few big books. Much more important is knowing what to put on the label. Plant specimens tend to be mounted on large (A3) sheets of paper, giving a lot of space to write pertinent information. Therefore, major additional categories from that on insect labels include its frequency (is it rare, common, or something in between?), and details of the plant's height, growth habit and description of aspects of the plant that disappear when pressed (e.g. colour of flowers, smell and sap). There's also the space and ability to provide exact locality data and more detailed habitat information than is possible with insect labels.