Meet Richard Meinertzhagen, a fascinating and disturbing character from the golden age of Edwardian science. I first learned about him last weekend, reading the Extinction Countdown blog. Meinertzhagen was single-handedly responsible for convincing a couple generations of scientists that the Indian forest owlet was extinct when it actually was not. How?
Turns out, Meinertzhagen had a habit of stealing taxonomic specimens from museums, altering them, and then resubmitting them to different museums as his own discovery, complete with fabricated information about where and when he found the animal. His forest owlet, for example, was an 1884 specimen swiped from the British Museum of Natural History sometime after 1925. He later repackaged the bird as his own specimen, collected in 1914. The problem: Meinertzhagen claimed to have found the forest owlet in an Indian state where the owlets don't live. Later researchers, upon not finding any owlets in that state, concluded the birds must be extinct. This assumption wasn't disproven until 1997. But that's not even the weirdest stuff in Meinertzhagen's biography ...
The Encyclopedia of Life announces the winners of the Armchair Taxonomist competition featured here at Boing Boing. Everyone gets a warm thanks for helping to fill an open-source database with information about animals, plants, fungi, protozoa, and bacteria—but who gets to go on a tour of the Smithsonian?
All this month, we've been telling you about a fantastic challenge from the Encyclopedia of Life. Called Armchair Taxonomist, it's an opportunity to research and write about different plants, animals, fungi, and microscopic organisms — and, in the process, help move scientific information from places where it's hard for most people to see, to an open-access sandbox on the Internet.
If you've taken the time to write up an entry, fantastic. We're looking forward to reading them. You've also got a shot at the great stuff up for grabs — including a private, behind the scenes tour of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. If you've not entered yet, though, this is the last weekend you can. The deadline is Monday, May 20th at 6:00 pm Eastern.
This is the second story in a four-part, weekly series on taxonomy and speciation. It's meant to help you as you participate in Armchair Taxonomist — a challenge from the Encyclopedia of Life to bring scientific descriptions of animals, plants, and other living things out from behind paywalls and onto the Internet. Participants can earn cool prizes, so be sure to check it out!
On the sixth floor of New York's American Museum of Natural History — far away from the throngs of tourists and packs of schoolkids — there is a cold, white room, filled with white, metal cabinets.
The cabinets are full of dead things; leeches, sea anemones, lobsters ... any kind of invertebrate you can imagine. Even a giant squid. All of them have been carefully preserved. Each soaks in its own, luxuriant ethanol bath. Here they sit, some for a hundred years or more, waiting for scientists to pull them out into the light.
It's a bit like the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but for slimy, crawly, spineless things. There are collections like this all over the world, containing every species of animal, plant, and microscopic organism. Together, they serve as a record of Earth's biodiversity, a library of life. In them, you'll find more than just random specimens. Some of the individuals are special. Called "type specimens", they serve as ambassadors for their species, real-world models that define what each species is. For instance, the leech species Myxobdella maculata is both a group of leeches and exactly one leech — A leech that I got to meet on a behind-the-scenes tour with invertebrate curators Estefania Rodriguez and Mark Siddall.
This is the first story in a four-part, weekly series on taxonomy and speciation. It’s meant to help you as you participate in Armchair Taxonomist — a challenge from the Encyclopedia of Life to bring scientific descriptions of animals, plants, and other living things out from behind paywalls and onto the Internet.
Trouble is, a lot of information about living things is hidden behind paywalls or scattered across random sources where the general public can’t easily get to it. That’s where you come in! Help fill the Encyclopedia of Life’s open-source database with information about animals, plants, fungi, protozoa, and bacteria.
There is already a lichen — Caloplaca obamae — and a worm — Paragordius obamai — named after Barack Obama. Now he also has Obamadon gracilis, an ancient, extinct, carnivorous lizard.
You can read a full write-up on Obamadon at Carolyn Johnson's Science in Mind blog. It includes some behind-the-scenes detail on the amusing considerations one has to take into account when one decides to name a specimen after a sitting president just before an election.
But I also wanted to take this opportunity to point you towards Curious Taxonomy, a fantastic list of creatures great and small and the sometimes surprising celebrities they have been named after. In the list you'll find a dinosaur named for Ross Perot, a ridiculous number of animals and plants named after Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, and no fewer than three creatures named for Stephen Colbert.
And if you're noting that the selection of animals named in honor of Obama are not exactly the world's most flattering, never fear. Taxonomy is kind of bipartisan in its possibly-maybe-accidental insults. George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney have a trio of slime mold beetles.
When somebody says that a new species has been discovered, it's easy to get the impression that this is an animal nobody has ever seen before. But that's usually not exactly what scientists mean.
Take the lesula (or Cercopithecus lomamiensis), an African monkey whose "discovery" is making headlines this week. While it does seem to be true that this particular species hasn't been previously named and documented in the scientific literature, the scientists who wrote about the lesula were not the first people to encounter one. What's more, lesula do not represent a species totally removed from animals we already knew about. Here's Mongabay's Jeremy Hance:
"There are monkeys out there between the three rivers that no one recognizes. They are not in our field guides," Terese Hart wrote tantalizingly in a blog post in 2008. "We've sent photos to the most renown of African Primatologists. Result: a lot of raised eyebrows. And the more we find out the higher our eyebrows go."
One of these monkeys was the lesula (Cercopithecus lomamiensis). John Hart first came across the new species in June 2007 when he and a field team were shown a captive baby lesula, kept as a pet by the local school director's daughter in the remote village of Opala. The next step was locating the species in the wild.
...the lesula is apart of the Cercopithecini family, which are commonly referred to as guenons. It's most similar to the owl-faced monkey (Cercopithecus hamlyni), which is also found in the region. But the lesula sports a lighter coat and has unique calls. Genetic testing, furthermore, proves the species are distinct from each other and have likely been separated for a few million years, probably by impassable rivers.
The good news: A recent study of preserved museum specimens revealed that the Caribbean is home to 39 different species of skink, rather than the previously-accepted six. The bad news: Turns out that 16 of those species are already extinct. (Via Tim Heffernan)