Thursday, September 10, 2015

Zoobank is down (the future of taxonomic publishing).

ZooBank is currently down while I'm writing this, the "official registry of Zoological Nomenclature". This is the registry that all new electronically published names and nomenclatural acts must use before publication, and that all traditionally published nomenclatural acts SHOULD use before publication (but usually don't).

I don't know if this is just temporary down time, or this has been going for a while, but it's a definite problem. Especially with the way publishing is going.

I was just talking with Morgan Jackson about social media and taxonomic publications, because I woke up with a weird thought in my head this morning: what if I took the taxonomic portion of my dissertation, registered the new names with ZooBank, and published it as a PDF on my blog? Given the standards currently in the ICZN, and assuming I'm meticulous about referencing type specimens and depositories, etc., the new names would be totally available under the code! Any person can do this now, or at least they could if ZooBank was running.

This isn't only limited to nomenclatural acts originally published as PDFs. To quote Morgan,

"The Winnower is working to publish, assign DOIs and archive blog posts and reddit threads right now. There is very little standing in the way of someone publishing a new species name in an electronic place like reddit (with the proper [ZooBank] registration and everything) and having it become valid via Winnower sucking it up...As far as I know they haven't finalized their archiving with [CLOCKSS] yet, so they haven't met all of the Code requirements for digital publication, but last I talked to them it was in the works"

The Winnower, for those who aren't familiar, is an open access publishing site that uses an open access peer review system. They specialize mostly in commentary on publications (i.e., post publication peer review), but their targets include a wide variety of non-traditional publishing platforms like blogs and web forums. CLOCKSS is an archiving platform for electronic publications, which The Winnower is using to store publications as PDFs. What Morgan is suggesting is that a taxonomic work registered with ZooBank could be originally published on a blog, adopted by The Winnower, and archived with CLOCKSS; thus it would meet all electronic publication requirements of The Code despite not being available in it's original publishing context.

It seems convoluted, but the above scenario is totally workable under the current version of The Code. I can see both positive and negative elements of this. For one, the traditional taxonomic publishing method is incredibly ponderous, even with taxonomic journals such as Zookeys and Zootaxa. Publishing is further complicated by the general feeling in biology that taxonomic works are low priority under the categories "impact" and "significance". It also opens up low or zero cost ways for taxa-hackers to publish their work, and I'm all for that. (That new species of fungus gnat I've been sitting on, for example. Hmmm...)

Conversely, I see the recent trend in taxonomy for higher quality publications and the role Zootaxa, Zookeys, and other taxonomic journals have played in this. I would hate for taxonomic publishing to slide back into Townsend-esque quality or for taxonomic vandalism in the mode of a certain Australian snake hobbyist to become more common.

Someone will try one of the above methods eventually. Or whenever Zoobank is up and running again. At the time of finishing this, the registry website is available! But it still worries me, because electronic publication is only going to become more important in the next decade. If Zoobank is unreliable, then what of the future of animal taxonomy?

Thanks to Morgan Jackson (@bioinfocus) for help in fermenting these ideas.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Adopting Orphaned Taxa (TAD2015).

(For Taxonomist Appreciation Day 2015)

I know it’s been a while since my last blog post. I’m deep into research right now and about to defend my thesis proposal. I’m also working on a publication. Which means that my writing time is going elsewhere and not here.

My thesis research overall concerns a large and varied tribe of tachinid flies called Blondeliini (Blond-el-ee-ai-nai) or the blondeliines. The core of the work is the Blondelia group of genera, called such because it includes the type genus of the tribe, Blondelia. Females of the Blondelia group have a boat-like keel on the abdomen and a sharp piercing hook for poking holes in things, usually caterpillars.

The piercer isn’t an “ovipositor” in the homologous sense, because it doesn’t contain the tube that carries the egg into the host. Instead, the egg tube (the mostly membranous segments 8-10 of the abdomen) travels down the posterior groove in the piercer and into the hole the piercer has made in the host.

A female 'sword fly' of the genus Eucelatoria with hind legs removed. (1992: Mexico, Portillo de Reon.)

In one genus (Eucelatoria), the piercer can be half the body length! I’m not sure why these species have a piercer that long, but there’s some evidence they parasitize caterpillars hidden in rolls of leaves. Some Blondelia group species have spines on the ventral keel, and others have only bristles. Some males of the Blondelia group have hairy patches on their abdomens, and other closely related species are clean shaven. Host use varies; Costa Rican species of the Eucelatoria armigera complex are particular to one or a few species of noctuid moth caterpillar, while the polyphagous species Compsilura concinnata feeds on over 200 species of Lepidoptera.

With interesting oviposition behavior, morphology, and a large number of species (>135; not including all the many undescribed Neotropical species) the Blondelia group is an enticing project for a young taxonomist. Do not fall for this trap!

Orphaned taxa are those genera or families that are without a current expert or active worker. The Blondelia group, and Blondeliini in general, are a particularly frightening example. Abandonment can be for a number of reasons. In some cases the group isn’t charismatic enough, or is of minimal economic importance. In other cases high diversity and difficult diagnosis are deterrents. A history of poor descriptions and over-splitting genera may be to blame; for this final reason orphaned taxa often have a taxonomic impediment. The longer the period between experts, the greater the impediment to future research becomes.

In the case of the Blondelia group, our good friend Dr. Townsend is mostly to blame. He is responsible for naming nearly half of all valid blondeliine genera, and most of these with one species apiece. Add to this his notorious over-splitting, his mediocre descriptions, and his terrible, no good, very bad Manual of Myiology genus key, and very few people are courageous enough to venture forth.

However, not all blame can be placed on Townsend. Disregarding the history, blondeliines are a difficult group with many examples of morphological convergence. They are small, usually dark colored, and told apart mostly by arrangements of bristles. Color patterns often fool me.

Left: Sword fly male. Right: NOT sword fly male. Really similar, but really different. Can you see the difference? (Click for embiggen)

I thank Monty Wood for his great work on Blondeliini (1981), without which I would be lost. But this is a preliminary work of broad scope. Efforts focused on a single or a few genera have revealed the scale of the mess yet to be resolved.

Diego Inclan (a graduated MS from my lab) and Dr. John Stireman (my PI and advisor) provide a vexing example of this mess in their recent Zookeys paper. In his masters thesis, Diego found that some species considered part of the Neotropical blondeliine genus Erythromelana were clearly not. This lead to a convoluted taxonomic investigation. Below is a paragraph from the Zookeys paper as illustration.

“An example of the taxonomic instability of Neotropical tachinid genera is witnessed in the species Euptilodegeeria obumbrata (Wulp). This species was first classified in the former tachinid genus Hypostena by Wulp (1890; along with many other blondeliines), based on specimens collected in Guerrero, (southwest) Mexico. […] The species was moved by Townsend (1931) to the new genus Euptilodegeeria, moved again to the genus Erythromelana Townsend by Wood (1985) and recently excluded from Erythromelana and resurrected to its previous genus (Euptilodegeeria) by Inclán and Stireman (2013). Although the taxonomy of Tachinidae, particularly of the Blondeliini, is challenging due to the scarcity of clear synapomorphies, the confusion in the generic assignment of E. obumbrata was also due to the limited number of specimens evaluated, the lack of examination of male terminalia and the use of only males for the descriptions. In the present study, we use additional information from male and female terminalia to demonstrate that these “obumbrata” specimens, previously assigned to Hypostena, Euptilodegeeria and Erythromelana, actually belong to the genus Eucelatoria Townsend (1909), in which females possess a sharp piercer for internal oviposition in the host. We also argue that the former species Machairomasicera carinata described from a single female by Townsend (1919) in the monotypic genus Machairomasicera, and later synonymized with Eucelatoria by Wood (1985), belongs to this same species group of Eucelatoria, which we here define and characterize. In the end, taxa that were assigned to four different genera in fact belong to one species group of Eucelatoria, providing an example of the taxonomic confusion that plagues many groups of Neotropical tachinids.” [Emphasis mine]

Many similar issues remain in the genus Eucelatoria. The group may not even be monophyletic. I am not revising all the species in the Blondelia group for my dissertation—or even all the species in Eucelatoria—but the challenge feels insurmountable.

There are two ways to publish natural history research. One is to be cautious, to wait until all possible evidence is covered and carefully recorded, all the museums have been visited, and every last lead has been pursued. “I only have one more type to look at, and it’s been missing for 40 years. But I can’t publish until I find it.” The other is to rush wildly into publication with any new finding, getting the information out as quickly as possible. “Never mind the types in that European museum, I have the specimens here and there’s nothing (well) written in the literature to say I’m wrong!” 

Taxonomists, myself included, fall more on the cautious side. Townsend was an exception. We want all the bits of evidence before we publish our scientific opinions, whether that be new species, synonyms, homonyms, or redescriptions. Caution is great when you start with a clean slate. But in the face of a huge mess caution is paralyzing. How do I start? I’m looking at a great wreck of a building. Do I take the debris out piece by piece and slowly repair? Or do I knock it down, bulldozer the area, and pour a new foundation?

I have sat and looked and sat and looked and wondered at my specimens guessing and second guessing myself if what I am seeing is really separate species, or if they have been previously described. This back and forth mental motion is useless. I fear too much of wreaking havoc. But plenty havoc has already been wrought.

I think there is a middle ground. Stride boldly, but document everything. Don’t worry too much about creating new species synonyms or mis-associating males and females. Those issues can easily be fixed later. Otherwise you’ll spend the rest of your life waiting for that visit to that one university in Chile (when the type was long since moved to a museum elsewhere). At the same time, document everything and carefully record your findings. If you provide photographs, written description, genitalia drawings, and adequate references to collections and literature in your publications, someone else can build upon this firm basis and correct your mistakes.

An excellent example of walking this line is Dr. Lee Herman’s 2013 revision of the New World species of Oedichirus, a genus of rove beetles (Staphylinidae). Dr. Herman, a Curator Emeritus at the American Museum of Natural History, received the “J. O. Westwood Medal and Award for Insect Taxonomy” [PDF] for this publication. Rove beetles have a taxonomic history as equally tortured as tachinid flies. As in tachinids, associating males and females of the same species is difficult. At times only male or female specimens are available, and species were described sometimes based on the male and sometime based on the female. Furthermore, the majority of specimens available (including the types) are too old for modern techinques like DNA Barcoding. Herman could have waited until new specimens were available, but instead he pushes forward. In the methods section he writes, “hypotheses of male/female association proposed herein for the other species can be corroborated or refuted by DNA barcoding techniques using newly collected specimens.”

Remember that every “opinion” of natural history is a hypothesis subject to further testing. When our hypotheses are presented as expert opinion but rest on shoddy work they are an obstacle. When we refuse to present hypotheses for fear of being wrong they are also an obstacle. But when our hypotheses are presented boldly and rest on good work, even our mistakes are outweighed by the scientific contribution. I have discovered that it does no good to worry. Any well documented progress is good progress. Anything mopped up is better than the mess we have now.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

CHT Townsend, Vandal of the Calypterates. Epilogue.

Part I; Part II; Part III; Part IV; Part V.

When I began this series in January, my intent was to show parallels between recent and historical conflicts in taxonomy and systematics. You may remember Raymond Hoser from the first part and "Call for Comments" post. He is an extreme example, perhaps more extreme than Townsend with his repeatedly forced rhetoric and lack of decorum. In the history of taxonomy, however, this is not unusual.

And lest you all get this opinion, let it be said that I, Z. L. 'Kai' Burington, do NOT hate Charles Henry Tyler Townsend.

I chose to exhibit him in a negative light, the sort of light that people working on tachinid flies see him in. This is only one half of the story. Contrast my take with Neal Evenhuis's treatment (Page 15 in this PDF). He calls Townsend a "man of wanderlust and mystery" and outlines his many accomplishments, including: world expertise on Diptera and calypterate flies in particular; instruction in pest control (Jamaica); co-ownership of a taxidermy and zoological specimen company; biology professor (Philippines); biological control of the cotton square weevil (Peru); discovery of the fly vector for both verruga and Oruya fever (Peru); doctorate from Washington University; honorary custodian of calypterate flies at the US National Museum; control of leaf cutting ants (Brazil) and other pests (Peru).

Evenhuis told my favorite story of Townsend today during his talk at the 8th International Congress of Dipterology, that he traveled across the Amazon in 53 days (not including stops), and arrived in Peru just in time for his 60th birthday; he popped a champagne bottle near the beach in Pacasmayo to celebrate. I can't help but admire his intense energy and fortitude.

And then I'm brought back to the reality. Townsend was an ego driven, abrasive man who died quite bitter about his recession from science. The story feels like a one-two punch of schadenfreude, but the aftertaste is more like Townsend's own bitterness. He did many great things, and he is usually remembered for his vandalous legacy and his nutty ideas. Often I see the parallels between Dr. Townsend and the late Dr. Lynn Margulis. Both had incredible expertise. Both did great work. And both had some ego-related nutty ideas which threatened their public face and careers and which leave a shadow on their contributions.

I would like to say that things have changed since Townsend. Unfortunately they have not. And I would like to blame all the personality circus acts of this saga on Townsend alone. But I cannot do that either. Coquillett refused to speak with Townsend to try to make things right. Walton, instead of contacting in private, aired his equally abrasive opinions in a public forum. Aldrich, instead of simply cutting off contact and refusing to play along, continued his angry letter sending to his former colleague. And the rest of the dipterist community didn't step forward in outcry against these antics until after the 1925 "Insider History", long after the damage was done. In short, the egos of all people involved were to blame.

Things have not changed. I am, as I said above, at ICD8 this week. This morning as I pondered these questions and yesterday's panel on the "Future of Diptera taxonomy and systematics", a colleague said this to me. He said, it's not the differences in methods, or morphology vs. molecular, or ages of the participants that are why these issues--these apparent clashes--continue. The reason they continue is the difference in personalities.

The reason why the Townsend saga got out of hand--the egos and personalities of the people involved--is the same reason taxonomy lacks unity in our current crisis.

Just before my PhD program started I was working on a short term project at a U.S. museum. At the end of the project one of the curators gave me a long and personal lecture. He said that the most important thing for my future was to be kind and generous to everyone, to promote unity, and to tamp down ego. Because, he said, selfishness and other personality flaws are to blame for our problems in taxonomy.

And the people who are most public, most obvious, the loudest, most outspoken people are often the most abrasive, unkind and ungenerous people. I cannot tell you the number of times I have yelled at my email in the past months upon finding yet another message from the ICZN-listserv. This forum, which was supposed to be for finding and giving help and discussing zoological nomenclature, has become a platform for various taxonomists (including Hoser but not limited to him) to argue and curse at each other publicly over their personal disputes. I have spoken with several people about this on Twitter. The general response is that it is going to happen and there's nothing I can do about it. The Taxacom listserv is much the same. Better to ignore it, I was told.

Yet THIS is the face we present the world and it is not a pretty face. It is the face of irrelevance. If we let people like Townsend and Hoser be what people see in taxonomy, if they see anything at all, how much longer will our science be considered science at all? How can we live up to the many challenges if there is no public unity? How will our field of work continue if there is no kindness and generosity to each other and to the next generation?

Please prove me wrong.

Monday, August 4, 2014

CHT Townsend, Vandal of the Calypterates. Part V.

IN THE PREVIOUS POST...Townsend's ego-driven quest to propagate genus names ad infinitum leads to a libelous article attacking John Merton Aldrich. The backlash of his former colleagues suggests he had worn out his welcome.

Townsend never returned to North America.

Yet, he continued his research much as he had previously, or potentially more fervently. His output between 1915 and 1925 was smaller than the earlier years, but his publication record from 1926 until 1942 (2 years before his death) nearly matches those high numbers. There was the "Synopse dos generos muscoideos da regiao humida tropical da America" (Synopsis of muscoid genera from the tropical rainforest region of America), published in 1927. The Synopsis contains a 100 page dicotomous key with 605 individual couplets, in Portuguese, and uses a system of abbreviation conceived by Townsend. It was undoubtedly as difficult to use then as it is now. Of course, no Townsend publication would be complete without at least one new genus, so he includes 87 pages of them (with several on each page).

New species description from "Synopse dos Generos" (1927). It is both in Portugese and Townsendian abbreviation. Perhaps it is thankful in this case that Townsend described a new genus for nearly every species, as all of his genera are well described in the Manual of Myiology in English (with comparable abbreviations).

And there was the long awaited Manual of Myiology, published in 12 large volumes between 1934 and 1942. If Townsend could be considered to have a Magnum Opus, this is it. It includes complete keys to families, tribes, and genera of "Oestromuscaria" (muscoid flies), descriptions of all genera, and notes on biology and morphology of the various tribes. Volumes 11-12 contained a strange digression from the earlier sections, including chapters on the Tertiary origin of the Moon from a near Oceanic continent, the origin of humans ("Hands cannot remain idle. Doubtless driftwood clubs and fistsized pebbles were their first implements."), the flight mechanics of a Cnephanamyia bot fly traveling at 400 yards per second, and very, very wrong ideas about gravity.

Cretaceous map of Pangaea (According to Townsend (1942)). Note the clearly marked "Moon" attached to Oceana, which, as Terry Wheeler pointed out, "explains those Australia-Moon sister groups."

This second to last item, bot flies traveling at Mach I, has it's own story in one of the most bizarre papers ever to be published in an entomological journal. Dr. Peter Adler mentions Townsend in his Insect Morphology course, and says only two things about him. One, that he has a very strange species concept, and two, that he clocked a bot fly traveling at 800 miles per hour. Long before I started working on tachinids I was already aware that Townsend was a strange fellow.

Townsend claimed to have observed this physical impossibility in Arizona at 12,000 ft, which he described originally in the April 1926 issue of Scientific Monthly. After recieving several comments, he wrote in response in his paper titled "On the Cphenemyia flight mechanism and the daylight day circuit of the Earth by flight" (1927) that by traveling at this speed (815 miles per hour) one could circuit the earth in less than a day, or see two days traveling east. "It is of extreme interest as affording a mark [466 mph] that should be reached within the next decade; while the more remote future holds the possibility of riding the tail of high noon or speeding on the wings of the morning halfway between the equator and either pole. It can not be denied that the double daylight-day westward circuit will attain great poularity before the single daylight day circuit is realized." 

Since the vibrating wings of a fly are very different than that of a bird or a fixed wing aircraft, he gives the fly flight mechanics its own name, the "Myiopter" groundplan. Townsend proceeds to describe this groundplan in great detail, but not before inserting some off color remarks.

"Regarding the speeds of Cephenemyia, the idea of a fly overtaking a bullet is a painful mental pill to swallow, as a friend has quaintly written me, yet these flies can probably do that to an old-fashioned musket ball. They could probably have kept up with the shells that the German big-bertha shot into Paris during the world war."

This (to use Townsend's own word) quaint idea was thoroughly debunked by Nobel laureate Irving Langmuir in 1938, who brought the speed down to a more believable but still appreciable 25 miles per hour.

In the same year, Townsend published his second paper on synonymy. The first, as you may remember, was published in Science Journal (1911) and was relatively optimistic. The 1927 "What constitutes synonymy?" paper is decidedly bitter and full of schadenfreude. I have transcribed the majority for your enjoyment:

"I have never for a moment considered [these genera] synonymous with Hilarella. Such synonymy is quite ridiculous. As to the rest of the world, no one competent to form an opinion had studied material, hence no opinion existed but rather a complete indifference. Nobody cared a snap whether these genera were synonyms or not. This forcibly illustrates what a power lies concealed in the weapon synonymy. A careful worker may erect valid genera and species. An ignorant or malicious person may publish an article stating that these valid genera and species are synonyms, and henceforth they bear the synonymic stigma. The genera public is not competent to judge of the merits of the case, and besides has troubles of its own. No one cares a snap about the matter unless he is making a special study of the group in question. The original author may publish a refutation of the synonymy. Nobody pays any attention to him, the public not being interested, and his refutation is quickly forgotten. Fifty years later, a competent worker reconizes these genera and species as valid and concludes that they have lain in the synonymy a half century. Is he technically correct in this view?
Synonymy has too long masqueraded as a court of permanent and infallible decisions. There is nothing final about synonymy[...]
The synonymic pronouncements of a single individual carry weight in exact ratio to his ability in the groups concerned. But the general public has no means of judging of his ability. If he sets himself up as a specialist and speaks with confident authority, the public accepts him at his own valuation. He is henceforth at liberty to inflict his personal opinions on a long-suffering public and to manufacture synonymy ad libitum. This is the easiest thing in the world to accomplish as long as the manufacturers escapes detection as a fraud. In fact, it may be termed systematic pastime. He is knocking everything on the head right and left as suits his fancy, while the public looks on unconcerned and practically uninterested. He is destroyed, not building, but no one cares except the original builder who notes the attempt to level to the ground his laboriously erected edifices. Yet they are not really leveled and their status is just as good as before until the synonymy in question is abundantly endorsed [...] This strong weapon synonymy is not to be left at the beck and call of every individual."

Upon hearing the above, my darling partner declared "Dear Sir: No one will ever recognize your true genius, even long after you are dead" and "You mad, Bro?". The imagery of synonymy as a "weapon", of the good taxonomists as the "original builders", of the synonymizers as "knocking everything on the head" and being "destroyed, not building", and that "no one gives a snap" shows Townsend at his low point. This was, after all, just two years past the "Insider History", and before he found a way to publish the Manual of Myiology.

In 1944, only two years after the final volume of the Manual was published, Townsend died in his home at Itaquaquecetuba. The total number of publications over his lifetime is in the hundreds, and the total count of species described is near 1500. He seemed to have burned every bridge with his former colleagues. He outlived his "bitter hatreds". Aldrich died in 1934, the "nation's greatest accumulator of dipterological information" (from Melander 1934). Coquillett had long since passed. The works of both were celebrated. 

The Townsend obituary published in Revista de Entomologia (1943) paints him in a positive light, as a great entomologist, biologist, linguist, author, farmer, hunter of beasts, and a member of numerous scientific societies. Yet, to taxonomists who work with tachinids, he is remembered most for his ego and vandalism.


Thursday, July 17, 2014

CHT Townsend, Vandal of the Calypterates. Part IV.

IN THE LAST EPISODE...we examined the short but pointed publication war between Townsend and Walton. Now we return to Townsend's "second bitter hatred", that of John Merton Aldrich.

 In 1914, Townsend returned from Peru and became the honorary custodian of muscoid diptera at the U.S. National Museum. He had just received his doctorate from Washington University and was working at the Bureau of Entomology. The plan was to quickly finish his Manual of Myiology, but the first volume wouldn't be published till 1934, long after he had left the U.S. Instead, Townsend was caught up in a conflict with his perceived rival, Aldrich. This can be seen in his publication output, which dropped from over 30 papers on tachinids in 1915-16 to only five in 1917, and never returned to the previous numbers.

Aldrich, also an employee of the Bureau, had recently left his job at the University of Idaho and was working in Indiana. In 1915 he published a summary of his 25 years collecting tachinid flies, which followed closely to Coquillett's 1898 revision. Townsend was not pleased; the paper ignored his many families of "muscoid" flies and condensed them all into a single family, Tachinidae.

It is interesting, though entirely unintentional I'm sure, that Townsend's "On Proper Generic Concepts" follows directly after Aldrich's paper in the same 'Annals' volume. This is yet another attempt to rally for more restricted generic concepts. Here, Townsend begins by separating all the Muscoid taxonomists into two categories, the "specialists" and "generalists". Specialists, such as Rondani, Desvoidy, and the much admired Brauer & Bergenstramm, used restricted generic concepts. Despite the many potential flaws in their work due to ignorance of internal reproductive characters, Townsend finds their work excellent. Conversely, authors such as Macquart, Schiner, van der Wulp, Walker, Bigot, and the ever hated Coquillett are all generalists, who

"attempted to apply the same broad generic concepts to the Muscoidea that they applied to the rest of the Diptera. Without going into lengthy detail, it is enough to state that their mistakes are many and often overshadow the good contained in their results. Their misidentifications of species are extremely numerous. Their wholesale confusion of distinct generic forms was the natural result of no concise generic concepts. Almost throughout, their genera are mixed-genera. They may be said to have practically lacked muscoid generic concepts, for their generic rulings were largely arbitrary and so loose as to admit numberous foreign elements. The true explaination of all this is that they possessed only the most superficial knowledge of their subject."

Townsend goes on to discuss proper generic concepts, those that do not group by "transitional species." "Groups of generic stems [as of tips of a tree] that happen to be connected throughout by transitional species can not be treated as a single genus, on account of their diverse combinations of characters." The branches have not become decimated over time due to their young age, removing the "transitional stocks".

Table from Townsend (1915) showing the pros and cons of restricted and unrestricted generic concepts.

Figure from Townsend (1915) showing two "families" of tachinids with some species used for illustration of convergence and transitional species. Older, decimated stocks would have more easily delineated genera.

The above figures are interesting as evidence that Townsend's basic ideas were not poorly thought out. He was attempting methods to classify a very recent group of insects which had not been decimated (see Wonderful Life (Gould 1989)), and thus there were many apparently intermediate forms between what would otherwise be clearly recognizable genera. The problem isn't Townsend's justifications, it's the extremism of his taxonomic splitting and inflationism.

Though not explicitly named, Townsend probably considered Aldrich as a generalist, making a "great number of egregious blunders."

Between 1915 and 1924 we have little to mark the falling out between Aldrich and Townsend. In the earlier part of this 10 year period, it seems the two were communicating about their work on the genera Imitomyia and Masiphyia, and there is no direct evidence they were arguing behind the scenes. However, in 1918 Aldrich was moved from his post in Indiana to the Smithsonian, where he became the Curator of Diptera. Less than a year later, in March 1919, Townsend left D.C. for Peru and Ecuador, and later Brazil, to Iquaquecetuba, near Sao Paulo. There's some reason to suspect that Townsend left America because of professional conflicts with his "new boss", Aldrich. The "Inside History" makes it seem that he was fearful of Aldrich undoing his organizational work at the museum, as he quickly published notes on the collections soon after leaving.

What Townsend does next is a bit astounding. He published two personal correspondences from Aldrich in his 1925 History. Such a thing seems completely absurd to us now, a total breach of academic conduct and courtesy, yet, it is similar to the methods of Raymond Hoser (our contemporary, who inspired this series).

On May 8th, 1924, Aldrich sent this letter. The context is a paper he just published with colleague Webber on a tachinid species complex. He writes: "You will not like it, because we did not recognize enough genera to suit you. I am responsible for the generic arrangement, which cost me an immense amount of work and study."

Townsend replies: "Your remark is highly significant. Instead of wasting time in an attempt to extend generic limits arbitrarily where they do not naturally fall, it is far wiser to strike a generic arrangement that shall be fairly simple and easy to follow out. Restricted genera, concisely defined, attain the greatest simplicity of treatment possible."

Aldrich responds, on August 2nd:  

"It would be useless to undertake any general discussion of the limits of genera. I have, as I freely admit, much difficulty in determining them. You solve the problem by making a genus for almost every species, but you encounter precisely my difficulty when you start to group these genera into tribes. So you are no better off than I am, and I am trying to classify muscoids as nearly as possible on the same lines as other animals. I never did take any stock in your oft-repeated belief that muscoids require a different taxonomy."

And, of course, hits the nail on the head. These sorts of issues will arise, no matter what rank Townsend decides is appropriate. Better to limit taxonomic inflation than to let the field become grossly distended with monospecific genera. But of course Townsend sees this differently.

"The work of Aldrich is destructive rather than constructive. He is attempting to relegate to the synonymy as many of Townsend's restricted muscoid genera as possible, with the sole aim of vindicating his own original commitment to broad categories. It is a pity that he is so unreceptive to progressive ideas and holds so stubbornly to long-exploded concepts. He refuses absolutely to change his ideas in the light of new facts. It is evident that his work will suffer proportionately in consequence. He has a better eye than Coquillett had for muscoid characters, but he persists in ignoring important characters which Townsend has pointed out, partly from prejudice and partly from the difficulty of interpreting them."

Remember, he's writing in the third person, about a professional colleague, in a professional journal. 

The ego-train continues:

"The numerous dicta put forth by Aldrich would be interesting if true, but the trouble is that no dependence can be placed on them. They are simply the individual prejudiced opinions of a man who is unable to learn because he will not keep a receptive mind."


"Townsend harbors no animosity toward any one, for life is too short to waste in animosities. He writes this himself, standing off as a detached and impartial observer, contemplating his own work as though it belonged to another, and exposing this inside history only in the interests of fair play and a square deal."

You get the idea. He has an ego as tall as the Washington Monument, and a lack of decorum to match.

The drawn out rant finally concludes:

"Such is a brief outline of the work on muscoid taxonomy in North America to date, involving also recent work in South America. Younger students are arising, from whom we may expect much. Let the keep an open mind, for a closed mind is a fatal fault in an investigator. Let them beware of prejudices and commit themselves only to a search for truth. They, will then not be faced by the alternative of retraction, or continuance on a mistaken course."

All of this was published, March 1925, in the Journal of the New York Entomological Society.

In 1926, the Society's publication committee received a letter signed by 23 American entomologists, including John Merton Aldrich. It was published as follows:

"To the Publication Committee, New York Entomological Society.
The undersigned wish to express their great surprise and regret that you should have published in your Journal the article by [Townsend] [...] This article is in substance a bitter and uncalled for attack upon [Aldrich], a man of high standing, who is greatly respected both as a man and an entomologist. Dr. Aldrich's criticisms of Dr. Townsend's work in his studies of the Muscoidea have always been justifiable and were an honest endeavor to reach the truth. No one could do as much on this group as Dr. Aldrich has done and criticize Townsend less. Therefore we earnestly desire that you make it known in the next issue of the Journal that you greatly regret the publication of this article and extend to Dr. Aldrich your sincere apology."

With which the Publication Committee also published a reply: "[The Committee] regrets any hard feeling has been aroused and all of use feel that Townsend went too far. In fact, it seems to us that he spoiled his won case, if he has one, by indulging in personalities."

Townsend, the purported "insider historian", never returned to North America.

Concluded in Part V.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Canfield - Field Notes on Science and Nature

Just what is the best way to record and organize my research notes? I've long been interested in answering this question. On the first day of my master's degree, I started a bound notebook (I love the squared, softcover Moleskine notebooks), and used it for caddisfly-exclusive notes. In particular, the notebook filled with sketches, observations, and thoughts pertaining to my work on the genus Cheumatopsyche. When I started my PhD program, I did the same for my tachinid research. I also keep a Grinnel-style triad of field journal, catalog, and species accounts for any field work and dragonfly observations. These are less often used, as I spend most of my time in the lab looking at dead specimens under the microscope.

I had been meaning to read Field Notes on Science and Nature for several years now, and finally just got around to it. The book is a mixed collection of biologists, anthropologists, and geologists, writing about their methods of taking notes in the field (whatever "the field" might be). The individual chapters are accompanied by photographs of the actual field notes, so you get both the text explanation of methods as well as a visual example. The primary methods of these researchers range from the above mentioned Grinnel system, to more informal collections of notes and drawings, to careful logs of stratigraphy, to the completely electronic recording system of insect taxonomist Piotr Nasrecki.

However, the overall feel is less that of a textbook on field work and more artbook-slash-nature journal. Most of the chapter authors supply prose accounts of exciting field observations, particularly those working with large mammals. And the journals in themselves are both art and historical artifacts; they carry information, but are also pleasant to look at.

One theme stretching through the work that seemed most important to me was that "the field" is not necessarily out in nature. It can be, in many people's research, simply in the presence of potentially living specimens. For me, viewing specimens at the microscope is "the field", and the notebook in which I record my observations is my "field journal". Another point many authors made was that observations should be recorded as soon as possible, in a permanent method which other people can use in the future. Who knows what piece of information may be useful?

I appreciated these and other suggestions on design and maintinance of field notes, including Jenny Keller's heuristic for drawing biological specimens in the chapter "Why Sketch?". I have been illustrating genitalia for some time now, but I have no formal art training, so some of her methods were completely unknown to me.

I recommend this book for anyone who does natural history research, because, even if you have already found your perfect method, you will appreciate the diversity of approaches to keeping notes in the field.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

CHT Townsend, Vandal of the Calypterates. Part III.

When we left off, in 1908, Aldrich's review of Williston's Manual of North American Diptera marked the "second bitter hatred" against Townsend. We leave Aldrich for a time and focus now on the events marking the "third bitter hatred" of William R. Walton.

That same year, Townsend began his work on the reproductive system of tachinid flies. This would lead to his doctorate in 1914 at George Washington University. A preliminary summary of this research was published in 1911. At the same time, he was taking collecting trips to Peru, and becoming increasingly disturbed by a large number of his names being relegated to synonymy. This resulted in the paper "On Muscoid and Especially Tachinid Synonymy" (June 1911).

This particular paper is not recounted in Townsend's 1925 history, but it is interesting for reasons beyond the content and timing. One, it is the first of two papers he published on the topic of synonymy, the other in 1927. And second, the journal is Science, which shows you how much that journal has changed over the past century, and how far taxonomy has fallen. At that time taxonomy was still considered a worthy and important pursuit by the majority of scientists, and a worker as prolific as Townsend was a superstar.

Aside from the mixed criticism of Aldrich and Coquillett, and praise for Brauer and Bergenstaumm, there are some opinions that seem ironic in the context of his own work. He calls for the careful examination of types, and wishes for it to lead onto synonymy. He writes,

"The statement that I am going to make now will probably astonish some people, but I can truthfully say that I would be greatly pleased to see half the generic and specific names that have been proposed in the Muscoidea safely relegated to the synonymy where they could rest undisturbed and buried forever, with no hope of a resurrection, a goodly sprinkling of my own among the number; but such a considerable reduction of names is hardly possible of realization. Looking toward a consummation of final synonymy, however, I shall hope to accomplish in the next few years some portion of the work necessary to this end, during the course of which I here pledge my word that those generic and specific names of my own making will receive the same impartial treatment at my hands as all others. My one wish in this matter is to secure certainty before putting a name into the synonymy. The making of incorrect synonymy is a much more serious taxonomic offense than proposing further names for forms already named. In the latter case the forms can always be definitely referred to by means of the names that have been bestowed upon them, but in the former case serious confusion is certain to ensue."

Indeed, it is astonishing. Without context, the writer would seem to be inclined towards synonymy and stability of nomenclature, but as Townsend's history and future shows, he is anything but.

1911 also marks the death of Daniel W. Coquillett, the man who, if you recall, was the "first bitter hatred against Townsend". Freed of Coquillett's reaction, Townsend published his "Readjustment of muscoid names" (1912), in which he claims that "dipterological nomenclature is getting a severe shaking up, and the Muscoidea comes in for their share." It was a victory dance of sorts.

Unfortunately, and possibly unbeknownst to Townsend, William R. Walton had become friends with Coquillett shortly before his death. He became, as Townsend put it in his history, Coquillett's "staunch defender".

At the November 7th meeting of the Entomological Society of Washington, Walton presented a paper "The variation of structural characters used in the classification of some muscoidean flies" (published in the Proceedings (1913)). He argued against the use of "characteristic bristles" as the main source of generic differences within calypterate fly classification, which Townsend and others had used to great effect. These include the number of hairs in lines on the thorax and the abdomen, and the apparent hairiness of the eyes. While some of these hair-based characters are conserved across lineages, others vary within species or even populations. Numbers and size of hairs can also be linked with the amount of food a larva receives during it's development, or the sex of the individual. Thus, Walton gives 4 recommendations:

"a. The erection of a genus on a single example of either is folly and should not be permitted.
b. The proposal of a new species on a single specimen or series representing only one sex is inadvisable.
c. The creation of either a genus or species on solely chaetotactic characters without a careful study of ample material is unwise.
d. The variants of a species should be conserved under species name until good and sufficient evidence is adduced prove they are otherwise. The splitting of species in the genus Lucilia as practiced by Mr. Townsend is a negative example what is here meant."

These are actually very good recommendations, still so 100 years later but especially so in the early 20th century. It was common back then to describe new species (or genera!) based on a single specimen, or on a series of one sex. For example, the male of Eucelatoria gladiatrix was originally described as Proroglutea pilligera; the female was named Xiphomyia gladiatrix. Both were from single specimens (and both by Townsend). Careful taxonomy is what Walton is asking for, and Townsend was considered to be a prime offender. He closes,

"It seems possible that the studies of the internal anatomy of these flies upon which Mr. CHT Townsend is at present working may eventually prove useful as an index to group relations. But the mass of undigested facts, near facts, and conjecture with which he is at present deluging the devoted heads of his confreres will require an immense amount of elucidation, rearrangement, and generous elimination before becoming available for use. To conclude, there is great need of careful rearings of species belonging to homogeneous groups, from known parents, for the purpose of studying variation of structure, color, and size within the species and, failing which our knowledge of the true relations of the Muscoidean flies will never extend much beyond its present meager limits."

 Townsend was quick to respond, and fired off three papers on taxonomic theory before the end of 1913. The first of these, "Criticism and Muscoid taxonomy", is a direct rebuttal to Walton's paper. Townsend appreciated Walton's dissection of variable characters, but disagreed with Walton's recommendations, especially the first. Walton is declared "a champion of Mr. Coquillett's work on muscoid flies", and that "time will fully demonstrate whatever merit that work may possess, and no one's commendation can increase its merit one whit." "Beginners" and "new students" are clearly not suited to make these judgements, and should wait until they have enough experience before they do. Townsend, in his own opinion, is the expert. Any may come and join him, there is more than enough work to be done; "no one need harbor petty jealousy of another's work." Townsend concludes, 

"It is unwise and unseemly for a beginner in a difficult subject to ridicule good work done by his predecessors. Caustic comment has no legitimate place in taxonomic literature, and solves no problems. In the minds of all right-thinking persons such comment serves no other purpose than to reflect on the commentator. I bespeak a spirit of cordial cooperation on the part of my confreres. Such spirit will be both highly appreciated and warmly reciprocated."

That is, as long as his "confreres" fall in line with his cherished taxonomic opinions. All are welcome, but know I am the ultimate authority. This line was laid out in his next paper, "A new application of taxonomic principles", which is a rambling and convoluted account of his "typic-atypic" system. I honestly can't make any sense of it, except that it seems like he is proposing a taxonomic unit between genus and subtribe. Perhaps this is an early formulation of his "natural genus" concept (see Part I for a full explanation).

The final 1913 paper, "Notes on Exoristidae" is full of the same haughty language, same mixed criticism and judgement upon other workers seen in the above 1911 paper. He praises Walton for his attention to detail and illustrations, and equally condemns Coquillett, calling the former works "constructive" and the latter works "destructive". Townsend writes,

"What is needed in the Muscoidea and especially in the Exoristidae [i.e., the subfamily Exoristinae of Tachinidae] and more nearly allied families, is an intensive study of the numerous forms thoroughly and conscientiously carried through, without bias and with that keen adjustment of character values and natural appreciation of phylogenetic relations which stamp the master zoölogist. Each one of us must strive as best he can to attain this result."

Among the "destructive" poseurs and the "creative" "master zoölogists", it is clear from Townsend's writing where he thought himself to stand.

In 1914, Walton published a scathing rebuttal to the "Notes on Exoristidae" and Townsend's opinions of Coquillett in general. He titled it "On the Work of the Late Daniel W. Coquillett and Others", but it's clear from the first sentence that the whole and entire target is Townsend. What follows is a catalog of errors, from outright mistakes in descriptions of type specimens (legs cannot be both "not yellow" and "wholly yellow"), to imagined microscopic characters and overlooked obvious characters, to the large number of Townsend names that had been rightfully sunk into oblivion.  It also contains more than a few beautiful burns, including my favorite:

"It would seem that the possession of "that keen judgement of character values and natural appreciation of phylogenetic relations," cannot preserve even a "master zoologist" from palpable error when he does take sufficient care to see what is visible."


The whole work is delightful and worth a read (free at the JSTOR link above), especially the final words:

"But I conceive these criticisms would much better be said now, while the subject of them is present to explain this position, than in some distant future, when time shall have sealed his lips and stayed his busy pen forever. His fine command of English and evident scholarship will then avail him nothing, if some surviving, or perhaps yet unborn student rise up and brand his work destructive."

Thank you, Mr. Walton, for predicting that piece of irony. We are doing just that. Indeed, my current research hinges upon fixing at least part of Townsend's destructive mess.

As far as I am aware, no more shots were fired between Townsend and Walton in public.  The 1925 history reports, "Here was born a third hatred of Townsend which became very bitter until it was fortunately dispelled a few years later." He does not record anything more.

Meanwhile, the conflict between Townsend and his US National Museum supervisor John Merton Aldrich was intensifying.

Continued in Part IV.