Monday, February 25, 2013

TOL, EOL and rove beetles

I have been rather sad to see the diminish of the Tree of Life (TOL) project. The TOL is still of course available on line, but to my knowledge no new pages have been added for a while (at least according to the growth monitor list). I was a somewhat regular contributor with ~16 pages of rove beetle genera and several other node pages.

What I really liked about the TOL: there was a classification structure to the pages. Perhaps it was not perfect, with sometimes genera missing, but there was a logical structure where you could navigate and find what you were looking for.

But people move on and eventually want to do other things. So the TOL project at some point did not have funds to hire more people and the site stopped growing.

The Encyclopedia of Life is a project that started with a lot of fanfare (hey, E. O. Wilson). I think the site is very successful on what it does (random deposition of biological data) but it is not TOL. A search for rove beetles produces this page:

Can we count how many things are wrong in this page?

1)"Staphylins" is not a common or scientific name for rove beetles, unless of course you are French.

2) Staphylinidae "found in 5 classifications", three of them being various iterations of the erroneous ITIS classication, another being the Paleobiology database and the last one being the Marine species database (seriously?). So, EOL uses five classifications, all of them problematic. How about using the one in TOL?

3) A picture of Tachinus as the first image on the website? Among all magnificent rove beetles, the best we can do is a Tachinus?

And do not get me started on the travesty of how EOL harvests content from the TOL. Compare e.g. the pages for Nordus in TOL and EOL.

Don't get me wrong, I see the value of EOL for the general public. But is the opening page for rove beetles much better than the Wikipedia page for the family? Honestly, I do not think so. So what is the value of EOL to me as a scientist, besides a statement on my NSF proposal regarding broader impacts? That's something I am struggling with since I do want to have meaningful broader impact contributions.  I am just a bit more skeptical now than I was five years ago regarding the longevity of all these projects, and the permanence of placing data online.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Finally, a rove beetle post!

One of my current projects involves the revision (or better, "a review") of the genus Trigonopselaphus. The name (as it is currently defined in Herman 2001) does not mean much and this is part of the reason why I am working on this review. These are truly amazing rove beetles, some with lengths over 20 mm and bright metallic coloration. They are also extremely rare in collections with just a handful of specimens known in all major collections.

Taxonomy had always such a great appeal to me because part of what you do is detective work - you try to figure out what happened to names (and specimens!) since they were originally proposed. Usually the work is rewarding but sometimes frustrating and perhaps disappointing, especially when you realize that historical specimens are lost forever.

One such story is the fate of Trigonopselaphus herculeanus (Laporte), 1835. The species was described originally in the genus Staphylinus (like anything else in those early days) by Laporte, whose full name was Fran├žois Louis Nompar de Caumont LaPorte, comte de Castelnau. Neal Evenhuis wrote recently a great paper in Zootaxa regarding Laporte and the mysterious loss of (part of) his collection. To make a long story short, Laporte decided to donate his personal collection to the USA and the collection arrived in the National Institution (later to be called Smithsonian) in 1842. Unfortunately, that collection was destroyed by fire in 1865. But perhaps the type of T. herculeanus was not included in the materials destroyed by fire?

A second collection of Laporte is held today in Australia at Museum Victoria but that collection contains only his later materials. Ken Walker (curator at Museum Victoria) explained to me that Laporte kept little cardboard drawings of all the species he did not have for his second collection. And unfortunately, a drawing of T. herculeanus was present in his Staphylinidae drawer at the Museum Victoria.