Thursday, October 12, 2017

Figuring things out

Recently I published an new paper describing the genus Phanolinopsis and describing four new species. While writing a paper like that is pretty straight forward once you have figured things out, it usually takes a lot of time to figure things out.

Many many years ago I was visiting a natural history museum examining their collection of Xanthopygina beetles. Among the materials was a specimen of Phanolinopsis erythros.

Phanolinopsis erythros Chatzimanolis
I was puzzled. At that time, I was working on the revision of Nordus and Philothalpus and had finished the revision of Elmas. Let just say that my understanding of Xanthopygina was limited. I asked a Very Important Rove beetle systematist at the museum there what they thought of the specimen and they looked at it and said: "Yes, I have examined it, I could not figure it out, I doubt you will".

Well, they were right in a sense, it took me 11 years to figure it out. I guess what I am trying to say is that figuring out things in taxonomy sometimes takes a very long time. So while writing a taxonomic paper is 'easy', deciding what goes in that paper may take a lifetime. I have been lucky to be able to work with Xanthopygina for ~17 years now, so I had the time to "figure things out". But I am afraid, the way we do science nowadays does not usually allow for having that much time of working uninterrupted* on a project or taxonomic group.

On an unrelated note, on the same paper I named a new species after my daughter.

Phanolinopsis norahae Chatzimanolis
* Over the years,  I have worked on other things other than Xanthopygina, from phylogeography to fossils, but I have never stopped looking at these beetles. 

Thursday, May 4, 2017

The end of Staphylinidae sensu stricto?

I recently submitted a book chapter on fossil rove beetles where I had the following footnote:

" One could argue that we have overextended the meaning of “Staphylinidae” since the family is not very well defined and the subfamilies themselves can probably be elevated to the family status."

The editors kindly asked me to remove it from the book chapter because they did not want to open Pandora's box (their expression, not mine).

So instead, I am just going to put it here, on this blog.

Over the last several years more and more ex-families (eg Scydmaeninae) are getting sucked into Staphylinidae and one could argue that Silphidae should be added soon. Have we reached the point where we need to evaluate what Staphylinidae really is and perhaps elevate "Staphylinidae" to a superfamily? Unfortunately, for some people this is a numbers game ("the largest family of animals") and I do not see this happening any time soon.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Xenopygus species

Back in November I published a paper in Zootaxa with new species and synonymies for Xenopygus Bernhauer. There are a lot of stories that can be told about this paper and if you are skilled in reading between the lines you can probably guess some by reading the paper itself.

Xenopygus davidi Chatzimanolis
But I want to tell one of the stories here. This is the story of how sometimes we are unable to deal with the backlog of specimens (perhaps data in general) until something happens. For many years I had two new species of Xenopygus awaiting description in my Xanthopygina cabinet. This is not unusual. By a quick count, I probably have ~100 new undescribed species of rove beetles trapped in the cabinet in front of my desk. But taxonomists do not spit out species description despite being urged to do so many times because we want to put these new species into context. That context is typically a revision of a genus, a phylogenetic analysis or fauna checklist.

But back to Xenopygus. I was sitting on these two new species because properly revising the genus meant dealing with thousands of specimens of one of the most common xanthopygine rove beetles, Xenopygus analis. It also meant changing the generic concept of Dysanellus (one of the described species there belonged in Xenopygus). And it also meant dealing with some bad taxonomic decisions made in the 70s-80s.

Xenopygus pycnos Chatzimanolis

So I was waiting until, I do not know, I was ready to deal with them. The Xenopygus manuscript was probably no. 7 in my "in preparation" manuscripts. Well, that changed when Caron et al (2016) published a paper revising Xenopygus. I was not aware of that paper until it came out in Zootaxa. Which was unfortunate, because I would have told Caron et al. about all the problems mentioned above. Caron et al. published two new species that ended up being synonyms of taxa that had been described before. To their defense, it was almost impossible to figure this out unless they had seen photos (or examined) of every single species in Xanthopygina. But on the plus side, they dealt with the revisionary aspects of X. analis and that allow me quickly to publish the two new species and regrettably to synonymize the species they described as new.  

I guess the story here is that we all need motivation in our lives. Sometimes motivation to finish that manuscript comes from places we do not expect.

Friday, September 9, 2016

It’s not a plant!

It started as a joke. For a couple of years it was the number 1 item in my to do list  on the lab whiteboard: “Revision of Smilax”. My botany colleagues would come in and start asking me if I got tired of rove beetles (never!) and wanted to switch to plant systematics. You see, Smilax L. is a cosmopolitan plant genus. My typical response was “It’s not a plant!”

So here it is: Smilax deineinephyto sp. n. described in the recently published revision of Smilax (pdf here), the myrmecophilous rove beetle genus. The epithet translates in Greek “It’s not a plant”.

Sometimes we go collect in a rainforest and come back with many new species, species that we knew in the field that were new. Or, we visit a natural history museum and look through their unsorted specimens and we immediately know that there is a new species there. Well, this is not one of these stories. The funny (or annoying, disturbing, same old -  depending on who you ask) story is that the species I described as new in this paper had actually been illustrated before.

From Scheerpeltz 1936.

Scheerpeltz in his 1936 paper, compared the species of Smilax pilosa with Smilax cyanea (then in Cordylaspis). Unfortunately, it seems that he did not study the type specimens for these taxa because what he identified as Smilax pilosa was (mostly) Smilax lynchi (Bruch). Also the type species for Smilax cyanea is conspecific with Smilax pilosa, and does not match what he illustrated as Smilax cyanea above. And thus, here is a new species, hidden in a collection for several decades, masqueraded as a previously described species.


Chatzimanolis, S. 2016. A revision of the myrmecophilous genus Smilax Laporte (Coleoptera: Staphylinidae: Staphylininae). Zootaxa 4162(2): 283-303

Scheerpeltz, O. 1936. Die von Prof. Dr. H. Eidmann gelegentlich seiner im Jahre 1933 nach Brasilien unternommenen Studienreise aufgesammelten Staphyliniden. I. Die in den Nestern von Atta sexdens L. aufgefundenen Staphyliniden, nebst einigen Bemerkungen über die Gattung Scariphaeus Er. Archiv für Naturgeschichte, N.F. 5 (4), 483–540.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Remembering Tom Taylor

I found out the other day that one of my graduate school professors had passed away. Tom Taylor was a paleobotanist at KU and member of the National Academy of Sciences. When I arrived in KU in 1999 as a starting graduate student, Tom was the department chair of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. My advisor Steve Ashe (probably realizing how "green" I was) recommended that I should take a class offered by Tom called "The art of becoming a professional scientist". To this day, I do not think any other activity as a graduate student influenced more my trajectory as an academic. His class really helped me and dozens of other students over the years to realize what it takes to be a graduate student, to start networking with colleagues (as an exercise we had to send five reprint requests per week), and to start publishing early and consistently.

There were many times in my graduate career that I barged into Tom's office to ask him questions [and remember this guy was the department chair] and he was always welcoming. I remember one particular afternoon in my third year that he spent a good hour talking with me [without scheduling a meeting with him] about career and life in general, trying to help me in a particular difficult spot in my life. I look back now [with a better understanding of time constraints and work load] and I am both surprised and grateful of how open Tom was to impromptu meetings like that.

I do not know how well liked Tom was as a department chair; the few departmental meetings that I attended as a graduate student were     l e g e n d a r y. But I have come to realize that no department chair is ever liked by his/her faculty. And I know many graduate students that found their footings in their professional life because of Tom's class and I am deeply grateful for the impact he had in my life. 

Monday, June 20, 2016

Plociopterus ain't no myrmecophile!

In a paper just published in Coleopterists Bulletin (pdf here), Mariana Chani-Posse and I moved two myrmecophilous species of “Xanthopygina” in Philonthina. Both species had been described by Wasmann 1925 in the genus Plociopterus. And so for the last 90 or so years, Plociopterus was known to have two myrmecophilous species. Unfortunately, several authors discussing the origin of myrmecophily in Staphylinidae (or at least specifically for Staphylinini) was using this as an example of independent evolution of myrmecophilous life style. The problem was that nobody had checked the specimens since the original description, because none of those species belonged in Plociopterus. They are Belonuchus (at least until the genus is revised) and for those keeping score at home, this is also the wrong subtribe…

The moral of the story is this: people make mistakes and generic concepts change over time, as well as our understanding or higher level relationships. As I have mentioned earlier, If somebody described a taxon 100 years ago, chances are that this taxon now belongs in a different genus or is a synonym of something else. Using raw data in biodiversity studies without going through the lens of a revision is almost guaranteed to lead to erroneous results.

As a side note, Plociopterus is in terrible need of a revision. There are multiple new species awaiting description and many taxa that have to be placed in synonymy. But the genus has an infamous history among Xanthopygina workers: at least twice people have started its revision (both in the lab of my late PhD advisor, Steve Ashe) and both times people abandoned the effort. Perhaps third time’s the charm?

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Thoughts on studies using taxonomic data

tl;dr version: Your results are mostly wrong. Unless someone has revised (in a taxonomic sense) the species you are using in your study.

Longer version: People make mistakes. When we describe a new species, or a group of new species, we sometimes place them in a taxonomic rank (let’s say genus for argument’s sake) we think is correct but we cannot be absolutely sure, unless we have a very thorough phylogenetic analysis. Phylogenetic analyses are awesome, but in the age of genomics they cost a lot of money. And in many cases (incorrectly in my view), building that phylogeny is beyond the interest of the person describing these taxa.

Now consider that the majority of species were described a long time ago, long before people were thinking about phylogenetic relationships. Also, some of the early (we are talking 19-early 20th century here) taxonomists were not specialist per se, and would describe species among many different families of insects, thus not really knowing where those species belong. So, in many cases, if during the last 40 years nobody has taxonomically checked (=revise) the species you are are using, chances are that these species are: (a) synonyms of another species; (b) placed in the wrong genus or (c) placed in the wrong higher rank.

Example: in 2004 I published with several colleagues a study on when (day or night) rove beetles were active on Barro Colorado Island, Panama. If you want to read the details, the paper is here, but to save you from a lot of trouble, I just set up a flight intercept trap and for a period of 12 days I was sampling at dawn and dusk. Here is part of table 1:

My 2004 self made two three mistakes there. What we thought was Dysanellus ended up being a new genus of rove beetles described as Zackfalinus and Dysanellus is restricted to the southern part of South America. Likewise, what we thought was Philothalpus ended up being Oligotergus, because nobody had looked up before how messed up the generic limits were in Philothalpus. UPDATE: Adam Brunke correctly reminded me that all specimens identified as Quedius were indeed Cyrtoquedius based on this paper.

What I am saying is this: if you are pulling data out of a digitized collection of GBIF, good luck. I hope a taxonomist was interested in the taxa you want to use.

Of course, this idea is not new. Meier and Dikow (2004) have said this much more eloquently.