Thursday, July 10, 2014

Six species descriptions

That's how many species description I have to do to finish this manuscript. And by finish, I mean be completely done. Everything else has been written, illustrations are ready, text formatted for the journal. In the pre-kid days, I would simply stay in the office as long as it took. Sometimes descriptions are written fast, other times not. From past experience, I probably need 10 solid writing hours to finish them. The thing is, I do not have 10 solid hours because I have to go pick up the kiddo for swimming at 4pm. So those descriptions will not be finished today, and simply that thought makes me procrastinate a bit more (like writing a blog post) instead of working on those @#% descriptions. I am not complaining; it is just that getting used to a life with kids (and wanting to do a decent job as a parent) is hard, even three years later. 

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Surviving the pre tenure years

I am taking a small break from rove beetle posts to talk about something that I know very little about:  how to survive the pre tenure years. I recently (one year ago) got tenure and Pröf-like Substance had a post today soliciting opinions on how people “cleared the bar”. I am not claiming that my approach will work for everybody in a similar situation but below is what I found useful. For clarification, I work at metropolitan Master’s University with ~11,000 student enrollment. Some departments in my University have low or no research expectations but in my department it is expected that people will have an active research program.

1: Don’t be an asshole. To your students, to other faculty, to administrators or administrative assistants. Simply. Do. Not. People are willing to look the other way if you are marginally under the bar and you have been a decent human being but they will come to hunt you if you have behaved otherwise. Although I have seen assholes getting tenured in my University, it is always much harder to do so. Do not start personal vendettas with other faculty, like the year you are going up for tenure. Seriously.

2: Find out what works for you and your students in teaching and stick to it. Some faculty want to change how they teach every semester and this is not really a good idea in the pre tenure years. Find a teaching style that gets you good (or even better: excellent) evaluations and stick to it until you get tenure. Changing teaching style every other semester will result in fluctuating teaching evaluations and this is rarely seen as a good thing.

3: For the love of FSM, do research. In a primarily teaching University like the one I am working it is very easy to spend all of your time teaching, advising students and participating in committee work. Close your door, hide, turn off your light if you have to, but keep those papers coming out. And by the way, research = papers published. Invited talks, conferences, "reports" etc are nice but they do not cut it.

4: Apply for grants. Even in a undergraduate institution, having an externally funded competitive grant will go a long way towards getting tenure.

5: And finally: when I was a graduate student E. O. Wiley told me that “one shoud always try to get tenure and then solve the problems of the world”.

7/3/14 update: And if you have to talk at faculty meetings during the first years, follow the Silent Bob model: when you speak make sure it matters. 

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

A beetle and a coin

A species Trigonopselaphus Gemminger and Harold next to one $1c coin. For European readers, the size of the coin is between the size of 1c and 2c Euros. Some of the species in this genus are among the largest of all Staphylinidae with total length in excess of 20mm. Perhaps some Platydracus or Tasgius are larger than this, but not by much.


When I started working on this review, I thought (naively) that due to their size it will be an easy review (easy to find specimens in museums and easy to see the characters). I have been wrong on both accounts, with just a handful of specimens among major museums and almost zero variation of character traits between species. You would think that in a >20mm beast you would not have to count punctures or setae, but...

Stephen J. Gould had written once (don't remember the specific Natural History essay) that when mammals become very large they all tend to look alike and I start to believe that this may be the case for rove beetles as well. 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Sometimes at a teaching institution you are an island


I wore this awesome t-shirt at work today designed by Ainsley Seago (@americanbeetles on twitter)  and nobody got the joke. Some of my colleagues looked amused and a couple of my last semester General Entomology students looked like they understood there was a joke somewhere, but nothing more than that. Yes, perhaps you need a Ph. D. in insect systematics to get it*, but that's not the point. The point is that in a primarily undergraduate teaching institute chances are your colleagues will not have a clue about your research. I am not saying this as a negative thing about my colleagues; each one of us is doing his/her own thing but because of the particular institutional circumstances it is rather rare that two faculty will have the same research interest. For example, there are a number of systematists at UTC but nobody else does insects. Sometimes I really miss working in an entomology department or/and a museum...


* On the t-shirt there is a picture of a male Strepsiptera, known as a the twisted-winged parasites. In the 90s there was a lot of controversy regarding the sister group of Strepsiptera (whether they were related to Coleoptera or Diptera) and their phylogenies were used as a prime example of long branch attraction

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Rediscovering a Darwin specimen

One of the most common questions during the last couple of weeks has been "how did you end up with a Darwin specimen?" The short answer is that I was the right person at the right time.

Here is the long answer: Insect systematists are very specialized scientists. I can identify most beetles to families. I can identify rove beetles (the family Staphylinidae) to the subfamily level and I can identify most Staphylininae (one of the subfamilies of rove beetles) to tribes and subtribes.  I can name almost all species in my taxonomic expertise (the subtribe Xanthopygina) but ask me about subfamilies of Orthoptera or Diptera and I have no clue.

Darwin's statue in BMNH
The Darwin specimen happened to belong to the subtribe Xanthopygina and I guess I was the best person in the world to tell if this was a new species and a new genus.

Back in 2008 my colleague Alexey Solodovnikov (University of Copenhagen) told me that there was a "Darwin Xanthopygine" in the Natural History Museum of London. To be honest, I think I just said "OK" and did not think much about it. Later, I even visited the BMNH and I failed to locate the specimen myself. The thing is, I was not really looking for it. My main goal during that visit was to photograph the vast type collection of Xanthopygina by Sharp. So I was really photographing types and paid little attention to unsorted materials.

Alexey later told me that he had found the Darwin specimen in a box of random unsorted Staphylinidae that included both new and historical materials. Realizing that this is a Xanthopygine, he transferred it to the unsorted materials of the genus Trigonopselaphus, as the best guess on where this specimen might belong. However, at this point neither Alexey, me or anybody at BMNH knew/realized that this specimen was considered lost according to Smith (1987)

Trigonopselaphus sp. 
Fast forward a few years and I have decided to revise the genus Trigonopselaphus (revision is in progress). Typically, one requests all described materials (types) and any unsorted/unidentified materials that belong in that genus. I requested materials from several museums, including BMNH. It was only then that I saw the Darwin specimen and quickly realized that it is a new genus and new species. But it would be another few months before I realized that the specimen was considered lost, while I compiled an inventory of all rove beetle specimens collected by Darwin.

The thing is, it takes a lot of time and preparation to be able to tell if a specimen you see is "new". If I had seen the Darwin specimen in 2004 or 2008, I would have been able to tell that is is a Xanthopygine, but I do not think I would have been able to recognize it as something new. 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Working with a Darwin specimen

Today a paper came out where I describe a new genus and species of rove beetles. The description was based on just two specimens, one from the Natural History Museum, London and one from the Museum für Naturkunde der Humboldt Universität, Berlin. We typically want to have more specimens before we describe a new species. However, I decided to go ahead with the paper for two reason (1) I have been visiting major (accessible) entomological collections for more than 12 years and I have not seen other specimens and (2) one of the specimens was collected by Darwin himself!

Below is a photograph of the holotype of the new species, Darwinilus sedarisi Chatzimanolis.

Image Copyright, The Natural History Museum, London.
The Darwin specimen was collected in 1832 and there are traces of (non water-soluble) glue on the ventral side of the specimen. You undoubtedly noticed that the specimen is "dirty".  I did not attempt to "clean" it, either physically or post processing (i.e., in Photoshop). I was both in awe and scared to death handling the specimen, so I really tried to minimize time spent handling it. To dissect the genitalia I followed the steam method described by Beulah Garner (curator of Coleoptera in the Natural History Museum, London). But I did not attempt to relax the mouthparts of move the legs, a standard practice on more recent specimens, as I did not want to press my luck.  

Here is a close up of the head, where all the dust is visible in exquisite detail:

Image Copyright, The Natural History Museum, London.
I know I could have very easily cleaned the specimen with a fine paintbrush. But in a specimen as old as this, who am I to say that the dust does not belong there, especially when it does not affect the specimen description?  In a later post I will write about how I stumble upon the specimen. 

Monday, January 27, 2014

The making of a paper: Spanish Amber edition

Recently this paper came out, describing the fauna of rove beetles in Cretaceous Spanish amber.


I thought  I would provide here some details on how I ended up collaborating with two people I did not know before.

About a year ago I got an email from David Peris, a graduate student in Spain. He had a large collection of fossil rove beetles and as part of his PhD he wanted to describe them. He had funds from Spain for a trip over the Atlantic and wanted to come here, at UTC, to work with me for a period of ~ month. It turns out that my University does not have a clue on how to host an international long term visitor  was working hard towards building in infrastructure for visiting scientists -- but nothing inexpensive was available yet. For a little while it seemed like things are not going to work out, but my good friend at the University of Kansas, Michael Engel, offered to host us both there.

David arrived in Lawrence in June and I got there a few days laters. We spent ~ 2 weeks describing and discussing beetles and I am rather proud of the end result. The bed bug bites I got at the Lawrence hotel were totally worth it (also, three new specimens of Cimex lectularius for the teaching collection). We finished all descriptions during our time in Lawrence, and then David spent a bit more time back home getting all the illustrations and photographs ready for the paper. I think we submitted the paper in September, got accepted in November and published online in January.

Also a side note about writing papers: very frequently I hear people (typically in a condescending tone) saying that taxonomists can produce papers very fast (I guess as shown above), so for example an ecologist producing 1 paper/year should not feel bad if a taxonomist produces n papers/year. Two things: (1) yes, writing a description is fast, but to get there it typically requires many years of prep work to figure out what is new and (2) productive people always produce many more papers than non-productive people, regardless of the field, simple as that.