By Dominic Evangelista
One of my life-long dreams has been to discover and describe a species previously unknown to science. It’s something a lot of aspiring naturalists dream about. However, unlike my other dream of getting one at-bat for the Yankees, this one is actually pretty doable. In fact, as of November 2014 I have accomplished this goal (Evangelista et al. 2014).
But how easy is it? Can anyone describe their own species? You won’t know until you try. In order for you to make that happen, here’s my short how-to guide for taxonomy.
Step 1: Find something you think is new. It may be easier than it sounds. This may be difficult to do in Stokes State Forest, New Jersey, but might be relatively easy somewhere with diverse species and a lack of sampling, like Cusuco National Park in Honduras (Pinto and Jocque 2013). But traveling to exotic locations to find new species may be unnecessary. 1KITE researcher and all-around entomology guru Karl Kjer says, “Most people understandably believe that the best place to discover new species is the tropical rainforest. In reality, there are tens of thousands of species awaiting description in the unsorted materials found in natural history museums.” Break out those microscopes and stretch those pin-twirling muscles — you have some boxes to sort through!
Step 2: Identify your specimen. You need to show that the specimen you have is part of a particular higher taxon. If you think your species belongs to the genus Metallyticus, for example, you need to prove that it has whatever shared traits define that group. The harder (but maybe better) way would be to make a phylogeny of Metallyticus and show that your new species is nested within that clade. If you can’t do these things, then either 1) you have incorrectly chosen the higher taxon that you think the species belongs to, or 2) the specimen is so new and cool that you need to erect new higher taxa in order to be able to correctly classify it. I am supremely jealous of anyone who has done the latter.
Step 3: Differential diagnosis. You have convinced yourself and — more importantly — everyone else that your species is correctly designated to a higher taxon. Now you have to prove that your species is different than all of the other species in that taxon. This part is a bit controversial, as it means you have to apply a species concept. The argument over species concepts (De Queiroz 2007) will go on until we have sequenced the entire meta-genome of planet Earth.
Since this isn’t going to happen, probably ever, my advice is that you should just follow the precedent set by the people who have described the other species in your higher taxon. For me and many other entomologists, that means being insect pornographers. If you can show that there are two or more biologically meaningful traits that differentiate the genitalia of your species from other species in that higher taxon, then you may have done your job.
What is a biologically meaningful difference? It should be outside the range of intraspecific variation and preferably be functionally distinct. Without saying too much more, this requires that you know your organism pretty well.
Step 4: Describe it. Hooray, you have a new species! You’re about to enter the exclusive “Spuh-Nov” club (“Spuh” is the phonetic pronunciation for the abbreviation “sp.” — which is short for the word “species” — and “Nov” is short for the Latin word “Novus,” meaning “new”).
Now you just need to use all that organismal expertise you built up in steps two and three to write a darned-good species description. This should ideally include lots of written morphological descriptions, measurements, photos, illustrations, and genetic sequences. And if you live in the U.S., you should probably have a genetic barcode (Hajibabaei et al. 2007) or some other genetic sequence as part of your species description. It’s easy to do and not very costly, even if you pay someone else to do it. This also ensures that somewhere out there, there’s a DNA extraction from your species. This genetic sequence and extraction has valuable information about the identity of your species (Evangelista et al. 2013) and can be used for scientific investigation later on (Nagy et al. 2013).
Step 5: Get ready to publish it. This means that your specimens have been properly curated, your description is up to snuff, and your species has a name.
What do you name it? That’s up to you and the fabled ICZN rules.
Or you can take my approach and sell your species name to fund your other research. Even though it comes from the Gene Simmons guidebook on how to be a sell-out, I do think it’s a good idea, and I hope that at least May Berenbaum agrees with me (Berenbaum 2014).
Step 6: Publish your description. Tell your publicist you will only do interviews for NBC, FOX, and CBS (if they get their act together). OK, maybe that’s not necessary. Maybe the only person to see your description will be a soul-crushed researcher entering the new name into one of the countlessly redundant online zoological databases. But that’s not why you did it. You did it because it’s what you wanted to do all your life, and hopefully because it helps us understand a little more about life on earth.
Now that you know how, get out there and do it! As Karl Kjer says, “The major impediment to species discovery is the lack of trained taxonomists, and the shameful lack of support for their work.” We all know that the majority of life on earth has yet to be described. Whether you split a cryptic species or describe a singleton, you’re a taxonomist and you’re important.
Berenbaum M (2014) Buzzwords: Not Your Father’s Patronym. American Entomologist 60: 69-70
De Queiroz K (2007) Species concepts and species delimitation. Systematic Biology 56: 879-886. doi:10.1080/10635150701701083
Evangelista DA, Buss L, Ware JL (2013) Using DNA Barcodes to Confirm the Presence of a New Invasive Cockroach Pest in New York City. Journal of Economic Entomology 106: 2275-2279. doi:10.1603/ec13402
Evangelista DA, Kaplan K, Chan K, Wilson MM, Ware JL (2014) The Blattodea s.s. (Insecta: Dictyoptera) of the Guiana Shield. Zookeys.
Hajibabaei M, Singer GA, Hebert PD, Hickey DA (2007) DNA barcoding: how it complements taxonomy, molecular phylogenetics and population genetics. Trends Genetics 23: 167-172. doi:10.1016/j.tig.2007.02.001
Nagy ZT, Sonet G, Mortelmans J, Vandewynkel C, Grootaert P (2013) Using DNA barcodes for assessing diversity in the family Hybotidae (Diptera, Empidoidea). Zookeys 365: 263-278. doi:10.3897/zookeys.365.6070
Pinto RL, Jocque M (2013) A new species of Elpidium (Crustacea, Ostracoda) from bromeliads in Cusuco National Park, Honduras. Zookeys: 45-59. doi:10.3897/zookeys.313.4904
Dominic Evangelista is a PhD candidate at Rutgers University studying under Dr. Jessica L. Ware. His research involves exploring cockroach biodiversity of the Guianas on the regional and local level. Currently, he is exploring the landscape level processes that contribute to promoting evolutionary diversification. Follow him on Twitter at @Roach_Brain and view his current research project on Experiment.com.