Field of Science

Wot? No inverts?

Lost Forest Yields Several New Species

"An expedition led by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) to a remote corner of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo has uncovered unique forests which, so far, have been found to contain six animal species new to science: a bat, a rodent, two shrews, and two frogs." (My thanks to Coturnix for the link.)

There a mention of plants later, but nothing about any invertebrates from the area - I do hope they collected some. And even more to the point, that they have someone to look at them.

I've briefly mentioned before the vast number of species that probably remain to be described on this planet - to be honest, I would be surprised if an expedition to such an area in central Africa didn't recover new species. However, the limiting factor in describing new species isn't the availability of specimens - it's the availability of researchers to describe them. Every museum I've ever been to or heard about has vast collections of unidentified and unsorted specimens. And I'm not talking about places like Africa or South-East Asia that have a relative shortage of researchers - I'm talking Australia or New Zealand or even North America. You wouldn't need to travel far here in Australia to find an undescribed species. Heck, if you want to go down the bacterial level (and goddammit, I do) you probably have an undescribed species of bacterium - maybe even a whole host of undescribed species - inhabiting some crevice of your person at this very moment. Environmental DNA samples suggest that less than 1% of bacterial taxa have so far been described.

But there just aren't enough people working on taxonomy. I work on Opiliones - worldwide there are about six and a half thousand described species of Opiliones, with many more yet to come judging by the rate at which new species appear. All the same, all the Opiliones researchers in the world together could probably fit into a not overly large living room, and it wouldn't even feel that crowded.

And before anyone asks, "Why does it matter?" - if you don't have a solid taxonomic framework to work from, you can't really do anything else. Any sort of comparative work in ecology, physiology, even genetics, is ultimately dependent on accurate identification of the organisms concerned, and on a proper indication whether the subjects chosen are representative of what the researcher is trying to investigate. A study has been done on the visual abilities of cave-dwelling harvestmen in New Zealand (Meyer-Rochow & Liddle, 1987), using one representative each of the long-legged and short-legged suborders. Unfortunately, as regards the long-legged harvestmen, I have seen specimens from the cave system investigated, and there are potentially two species involved, neither of which is the species identified in the paper. This in no way reflects on the paper's authors, but entirely on the inadequacy of the taxonomic framework they were using. Despite the potential interest of the results found in this paper, the uncertainty about which species was investigated poses a severe impediment to their usefulness.

Anyway, I should leave off my rant for now - best I stop moaning about people not describing enough species, and go and actually describe some species.


Meyer-Rochow, V. B., & A. Liddle. 1987. Structure and function of the eyes of two species of opilionids (Megalopsalis tumida: Palpatores, and Hendea myersi cavernicola: Laniatores) from New Zealand glowworm caves. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B 233: 293-319.


  1. Exactly,

    My guess with the missing inverts is that they collected but never identified any and deposited them in a museum where it will sit for several until some poor graduate student calls around and asks the curator if they have X taxa. Or an expert may be invited to "catalogue" a collection.

    For instance, I asked the Swedish National Museum of Natural History if they would like to hire me to catalogue there anemone collection (home of the Sars expedition collections). After laughing in my face, they told me that Daphne Fautin, world expert of Hexacorallia, already did that years ago...

    I should have linked to this post, but didn't see it until now. Nice rant.

  2. Although it's deplorable that no invertebrates have been reported, news media, sadly, always prefer to write aboout vertebrates: for the general public the latter are simply more attractive. With regard to the study of eyes and vision in cave opilionids by Liddle and Meyer-Rochow, however, I am certain that it would have made little difference to their interesting physiological conclusions if it had been cave species a, b, or c that they studied. Their conclusions on the optics and visual capacity of cave opilionids are not restricted to a single species, but the consequence of the environmental conditions in the cave, common to all the cave-inhabiting species.

  3. I am certain that it would have made little difference to their interesting physiological conclusions if it had been cave species a, b, or c that they studied

    On the contrary, there are a number of potential problems arising. Of the species they described, one appeared to be an obligate troglobite (living permanently in caves) while one was more likely a troglophile (moving in and out of the caves). Also, the troglobitic species had the rather unique characteristic of retaining some visual ability despite living permanently underground - probably because a major component of its diet was glowworms. We cannot assume that these characteristics would also apply to any unexamined species.


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