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 third story in a multi-part 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! The deadline is May 20th
As depicted on Star Trek: The Original Series, the tricorder is a device that looks like the bastard love child of a Polaroid camera and a 1970s-era portable cassette deck. It was worn around the neck on a strap. It was black and clunky and definitely not what we would, today, call a sexy piece of electronics.
What made the tricorder a great piece of fictional technology wasn't its looks, but what it did. "Mr. Spock could use it to identify any organism, plant or animal, anywhere in the galaxy," said Carlos Garcia-Robledo, postdoctoral fellow in the department of botany at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. A portable tool that could quickly identify any species anywhere would be a game changer for science. Eventually, according to Garcia-Robledo and others, we'll have just that — put a piece of leaf or fur or insect leg into a machine and out pops its taxonomic information.
But what makes this really awesome is that — aside from the portable part — this is something we can actually do already. Garcia-Robledo does it regularly in his lab. The real-world tricorder isn't just something that's going to transform science someday. It's already doing that, right now.
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. Participants can earn cool prizes, so be sure to check it out!
If you aren't totally clear on what constitutes a species, or how scientists draw the line between one species and another, don't feel bad.
Quite frankly, the scientists are a little shaky on this stuff, as well.
That's because species aren't easily defined, and there's a lot of debate over whether an individual animal, plant, fungus, or bacterium belongs in one species group or another. In fact, if you want to know what a species is, it's best to not bother trying to grope for a strict definition, taxonomists told me. Instead, every species is really a hypothesis. "It's a testable conjecture," said Mark Siddall, curator of the phylums Annelida and Protozoa at the American Museum of Natural History. "It's a hypothesis about common ancestry, and the recency of that common ancestry."
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) — Maggie