Araba Bioscan

Araba Bioscan 4-11 December 2020

The week included a few cooler days and biomass in the trap was lower than the previous two weeks.

Photographs this week include several species ichneumonoid wasps that resemble others caught in recent weeks, but also many species not previously caught or photographed.

One of the cicadas caught this week and last week has been identified by David Emery as Yoyetta robertsonae Moulds, Popple & Emery 2020. The type locality for this recently described species is within meters of the Malaise trap. See the paper here: A new species of Yoyetta Moulds from south-eastern Australia with notes on relationships within the Yoyetta tristrigata species group (Hemiptera, Cicadidae, Cicadettini).

Araba Bioscan

Araba Bioscan 27 November to 4 December 2020

The trap continues to collect a wide diversity of insects in the new location. I’ve photographed a larger-than-usual selection, including several striking flies and wasps, and three different beetles from the family Mordellidae (tumbling flower beetles).

Many thanks to all those who have assisted with identifications on iNaturalist or in person.

Australia Pterophoridae

On the identity of Pterophorus tinctidactylus Newman, 1856

On 3 December 1855, Edward Newman read a paper to the Entomological Society of London on Characters of a few Australian Lepidoptera, collected by Mr. Thomas R. Oxley, subsequently published (in 1856) in the society’s Transactions (New Series, 3(8): 281-300). Oxley’s specimens were collected in Victoria, Australia, “at Forest Creek, Barker’s Creek and Campbell’s Creek, all on the Mount Alexander Range, and at a distance of about eighty miles from Melbourne.”

This paper described one new plume moth on page 300:

Genus PTEROPHORUS, Geoffroy.

Sp. 1. Pterophorus tinctidactylus, Newm.

Albus citreo-tinctus, lunula alarum pallide fusca anticarum, posticis dilute ochreo-cinereis. (Alarum dilat. ·65 unc.)

[i.e. Lemon-tinged white, with a pale fuscous crescent on the fore wings, and with hind wings slightly ochreous grey. (Wingspan 0.65 ? inches ?)]

White with a very slight tinge of lemon colour; on the fore wings is an indistinct brown mark just at the base of the cleft ; the hind wings are pale ochreous grey.

A single specimen only was taken ; it a good deal resembles P. osteodactylus, but is readily distinguished by the paler colour of the posterior wings, and by the citron-yellow — not fuscous hue — of the antennae. A second species of Pterophorus also forms part of the collection, but is so injured that I cannot venture to characterize it.

The type for tinctidactylus is apparently lost. Subsequent authors have suggested various ways to interpret Newman’s description.

Writing of Australian Pyralidina in 1885, Edward Meyrick simply wrote that he could not speak with certainty of P. tinctidactylus, Newm.

In 1994, Michael Schaffer and Ebbe S. Nielsen (in Nielsen E.S, Edwards E.D. & Rangsi T.V., Checklist of the Lepidoptera of Australia) offered a new combination, Hellinsia tinctidactylus (Newman, 1856). No explanation was offered, but this reflects Newman’s original statement that his species resembled Pterophorus osteodactylus, which is now treated as Hellinsia osteodactylus (Zeller, 1841).

In 2003, Cees Gielis (in World Catalogue of Insects Volume 4: Pterophoroidea &Alucitoidea (Lepidoptera)) tentatively (with two question marks) suggested that Newman’s species might be an alternative name for Platyptilia celidotus (Meyrick, 1884). If this proved true, Newman’s name predates Meyrick’s and would become the accepted name for the species. However, there seems no reason to suggest the identity between these species. Newman is clear that his insect is yellowish, whereas Platyptilia celidotus is a greyish to ivory-coloured insect. P. celidotus does have an streak at the base of the forewing cleft, but this is straight and angled.

There is however an Australian plume moth found in the region where Oxley collected his specimens and which fits Newman’s short description. His comparison was with Hellinsia osteodactylus, which indeed has a lemon-coloured tinge:

Hellinsia osteodactyla (Zeller, 1845) – J. Tyllinen, Copyrighted free use, via Wikimedia Commons

Imbophorus aptalis (Walker, 1864) (originally Aciptilus aptalis Walker, 1864) is a lemon-yellow coloured species with a variable crescent-shaped fuscous mark at the base of the cleft, yellow antennae, and paler hindwings than Hellinsia osteodactylus:

Imbophorus aptalis (Walker, 1864) – Specimen from Australian National Insect Collection, via Barcode of Life Database
Imbophorus aptalis (Walker, 1864) – Fresh individual, Victor W. Fazio III, via iNaturalist

The resemblance seems clear. Again, Newman’s description actually predates Walker’s description of Aciptilia aptalis and the name would have precedence, if the type were still available for confirmation.

Araba Bioscan

Araba Bioscan 20-27 November 2020 (New location)

This was the first week running a Malaise trap at the new location selected for the remainder of the project. It was operated in parallel with the original Malaise trap (just 10 m further north). For the results from the original trap, see Araba Bioscan 20-27 November 2020 (Original location).

The new position is slightly higher up a slope and less screened by vegetation on the lower side. Differences in air movements and sight lines presumably contributed to such a massive discrepancy in insect volumes.

Termites swarmed on Saturday 21 and Sunday 21 November and were well represented in both traps. The new trap however caught much greater biomass and many more species, particularly Diptera and Hymenoptera. A selection of the more conspicuous or striking species are illustrated.

Araba Bioscan

Araba Bioscan 20-27 November 2020 (Original location)

This was the final week operating a trap at the original location. A second Malaise trap was run in parallel this week around 10 m away and caught a much wider range of species – see the following post.

There was a swarming of termites on Saturday 21 and Sunday 22 November and the bulk of insects in this trap were from this event.

The collecting medium was 95% isopropyl alcohol.

Araba Bioscan

Araba Bioscan 13-20 November 2020

As with recent weeks, a relatively low number and diversity of insects (particularly when compared with the five-day test of a SLAM trap around 10 m away.

Over the next week, I will compare the current Malaise trap location with another Malaise trap located near the position used for the SLAM trap.

The collecting medium was 95% isopropyl alcohol.

Araba Bioscan

Araba Bioscan SLAM comparison 15-19 November 2020

SLAM trap
SLAM trap positioned for comparison with Malaise trap in the period 15-19 November 2020

There has been a noticeable imbalance in the insects collected in the Araba Bioscan Malaise trap to date. The vast majority of larger insects have been moths, with rather few flies or wasps. This week, I chose to add a second trap (a SLAM trap which operates like a small Malaise trap with four access quadrants instead of two sides) positioned around 10 m away in slightly more exposed spot. This page provides an overview of the material caught in this trap. The balance was very different with many more beetles, including three Euomma lateralis Boheman, 1858 (Tenebrionidae: Alleculinae) and one Pterohelaeus striatopunctatus Boisduval 1835 (Tenebrionidae: Tenebrioninae), and cockroaches, including one Robshelfordia circumducta (Walker, 1869) and seven Johnrehnia concisa (Walker, 1871) (both Ectobiidae: Blatellinae), and a larger number of insects overall. This was despite this trap only being deployed for less than five complete days.

This has encouraged me to set up a second Malaise trap in the position used for the SLAM trap and to compare this in the coming week with the original trap. Assuming a greater diversity of insects also occurs in the new Malaise trap, I will decommission the first one and effectively restart the clock on the project.

The collecting medium was 95% isopropyl alcohol.

Araba Bioscan

Araba Bioscan 6-13 November 2020

It was much warmer than last week and this was reflected in a greatly increased number of insects in the Malaise trap, particularly gelechioid moths. Philobota cretacea Meyrick, 1884 was noted last week as recorded for the first time at the site despite years of recording moths at light. This week, two more were collected.

I have photographed a selection of flies, including three separate Muscoidea. These vary in size, wing markings and leg colouration. Images 3a, 3b, 3c and 4 illustrate two individuals of a larger species of Muscidae with wing spots. Images, 5, 6, and 7 show three individuals of a smaller species of Muscidae with plainer wings and yellow tarsi. Based on material in BOLD, this seems to be a common species widely collected and clustered as BIN BOLD:AAU5065. Images 8a and 8b illustrate an individual apparently of Anthomyiidae with plain wings and orange-brown front femurs. Thanks again to tony_d on iNaturalist for assistance with these flies.

The collecting medium was 95% isopropyl alcohol.

Araba Bioscan

Araba Bioscan 30 October to 6 November 2020

This was a cold week and very wet. On 1 November, no point in the whole 24-hour period was as warm as midnight at the start.

The moths captured included several of the small oecophorid Hoplostega ochroma (Meyrick, 1886), as well as the first record for the site of Philobota cretacea Meyrick, 1884. This latter species had not been recorded from light trapping at the site.

Thanks to Frans for the springtail identification, Boris Büche on iNaturalist for the Aderidae identification, Nigel Main on iNaturalist for the ant genus identifications, and tonyd on iNaturalist for multiple fly identifications.

The collecting medium was 95% isopropyl alcohol.


Memes and phenotypes: Re-evaluating the role of taxonomy

A contribution to Dawkins studies

I’m not going to waste time putting this somewhere else, so I thought I might as well put it here …

Taxonomy is normally positioned as a long-running international research effort to recognise and delimit unique evolutionary lineages, describe and name these as species, and organise species within a hierarchical framework of higher taxa. Scientific names are accordingly seen as tools to facilitate human understanding, use and management of biodiversity. However, evolutionary biology reveals the inadequacy of this reductive and overly anthropocentric perspective. Scientific names are better understood as part of the extended phenotype (Dawkins, 1982) of many biological organisms, serving as avatars for collectives of these organisms to form and manipulate symbioses with Homo sapiens. These symbioses are mediated through the ability of these organisms to establish and control memes (Dawkins, 1976) that infect and penetrate human culture. Scientific names are the binding points that allow these memes to become established.

The process by which scientific names infect human consciousness is not dissimilar to mechanisms used by many parasitic organisms to infect their hosts. Scientific names are established when organisms successfully attract the attention of a susceptible and suitable human host. Most humans have some initial susceptibility, provided that the organisms are capable of stimulating sufficient interest to become memorable to the infected individual. However, only a small subset of potential hosts is suitable as a vehicle for wider transmission of this interest. Taxonomists serve as the primary hosts and transmit the infection more widely through their activity in publishing species treatments and scientific names. A broader subset of humans, including naturalists and nature lovers, may serve as intermediate hosts that transmit interest in unrecognised organisms to a suitable taxonomist. The infection becomes established as a published scientific name is adopted and reused within the scientific community. In some cases, the infection reaches epidemic levels when the wider human population develops an interest in the species. Modern social media serve as the leading pathway for global infection.

The relationship between any scientific name and an evolutionary lineage is more or less coincidental. Multiple and even unrelated lineages may share characteristics that hamper human recognition and discrimination. This allows such organisms to form mimicry rings that may never or only belatedly be recognised as swarms of cryptic species. Over time, advances in human technology and scientific method have disrupted many of these mimicry rings, effectively modifying the environment within which organisms must maintain the memes associated with their scientific names. This changing environment drives evolution in the membership of the organism collectives that taxonomists recognise as species. This evolution has an epiphenomenal presentation to human observers as a proliferation of species concepts associated with each scientific name.

Scientific names vary in their efficiency and infectiousness as tools for meme propagation. Factors such as euphony and memorability (including the familiarity of name elements to humans) may affect the wider transmission and persistence of a name within the consciousness of the community. 

As part of the extended phenotype of the associated organisms, scientific names support a vast network of symbioses between the world’s species and the human race. Most significantly, the memes tied to each scientific name may increase the reproductive fitness of a species by promoting and facilitating its trade and cultivation by humans, for example via the pet and aquarium trade and in the context of agriculture, horticulture and animal husbandry. In some cases, these memes can trigger the activation of human defence mechanisms, as for example when species are included in lists of undesirable pest or invasive organisms. However, some species may be successful in exploiting memes associated with their scientific names to avert human predation or exploitation (a form of aposematism) and even to elicit heightened human social responses (homologous to brood parasitism) and secure potentially significant assistance in the form of conservation or cultivation.

Some observers (e.g. Garnett and Christidis, 2017) have noted that certain organisms are disproportionately effective in propagating favourable memes and exploiting human responses. Those organisms that appear most charismatic to humans are most successful in parasitising human energy to support their conservation. In extreme cases, the heightened stimuli that these organism collectives present to taxonomists and the wider public trigger the splitting of an existing named collective into multiple named species. Each additional scientific name serves as a new avatar for the organisms to secure additional support and funding. Garnett and Christidis are concerned that such organisms have gamed human interest to a disproportionate extent and divert global resources from other species or components of the environment.

We should recognise that some scientific names are “sock puppets” that serve to deceive humans and subvert the perceived goals of the taxonomic community, conservation organisations and other stakeholders. Better governance mechanisms are required to inoculate the taxonomic community against super-charismatic taxa and protect the wider community from exploitation by these organisms.