Posts Tagged ‘science journalism’

Taxonomy Fail

Today’s breaking news in Ant Science is this:

Newly discovered pieces of amber have given scientists a peek into the Africa of 95 million years ago, when flowering plants blossomed across Earth and the animal world scrambled to adapt.

Suspended in the stream of time were ancestors of modern spiders, wasps and ferns, but the prize is a wingless ant that challenges current notions about the origins of that globe-spanning insect family…Inside the Ethiopian amber is an ant that looks nothing like ants found in Cretaceous amber from France and Burma.

Wow- that’s big news! I wonder what this amazing Ur-ant looks like? Fortunately, WIRED has a photo:

WIRED's caption- "Photos From Alexander Schmidt/PNAS: 1) Wingless ant"

Maybe I’m going out on a limb here, but I’ll venture that this ant looks nothing like the other ants because it is, in fact, a beetle. With clearly visible elytra, and everything.

And because the press coverage is coming out ahead of the release of the PNAS paper, we can’t check the study to see if this is WIRED’s error or if the researchers themselves actually mistook a beetle for an ant.

update: The PNAS paper (Schmidt et al., 2010, Cretaceous African life captured in amber, PNAS doi 10.1073/pnas.1000948107) is now out.  And yes, the mistake lies with the authors, as Fig. 3A shows the same beetle labeled as an ant.  They write:

The most outstanding discovery is a complete, well-preserved although enrolled, wingless female ant (Formicidae; Fig. 3A). Visible characters preclude affinities with the extinct Sphecomyrminae, which is the only subfamily recorded for contemporaneous and older ants in mid-Cretaceous Burmese and French amber (15, 16). Regardless of the subfamily, this discovery is significant because it is one of the oldest records of an ant and the earliest from Gondwana. It has been suggested that ants arose in Laurasia during the Early Cretaceous (16–18), but the present discovery challenges this hypothesis. Ants evolved concurrent with the rise of angiosperms but apparently remained scarce until radiating into the world’s most diverse and ecologically dominant eusocial organisms during the Paleogene (19). The discovery will aid in resolving the phylogeny and timescale of ant lineages.

Unless, of course, the ant is a beetle. Who the hell reviewed this paper?

update 2: on Roberto Keller’s visualization, I’m now viewing this thing as possibly not a beetle either. But still not an ant.

update 3: in the NYT, too? Ug.

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Here’s something that bugs me.  Instead of emphasizing the real significance of the find, a discovery like the “Mars ant” Martialis heureka is usually condensed down to  “Wow, this ant is weird!”.

I’ve pasted below a sampling of leads:

Newly-Discovered Bizarre Ant – Boing Boing

‘Ant From Mars’ Discovered in Amazon Rainforest – Fox News

‘Ant from Mars’ found in Amazon jungle – Science News

But weirdness misses the point.  We have weird ants already.  The suicidal exploding Camponotus is plenty weird.  So are the gliding ants, and the ants that swim.  The real story here is the evolutionary position of Martialis.  Among the first things that happened after the emergence of ants was speciation into two lineages: one leading to Martialis, the other leading to all the other ants.

What’s the point? The important scientific findings are those with implications that reach beyond the immediate discovery.  Having this new lineage attached to the ant evolutionary tree is all fine and good in its own right, but this new branch will allow for all sorts of new evolutionary studies.  Biologists use evolutionary trees to measure rates of changes in key traits, and to test hypotheses about the sequence of evolutionary events and the processes behind them.  For students of evolution, the significance of Martialis is akin to the launch of a new space telescope for astronomers. We’re in a better position to test some of these ideas we have about how insects evolve.

I don’t mean to tar the journalists here.  Some news outlets get it.  Nature news, for instance, draws an appropriate analogy by calling Martialis the myrmecologists’ platypus, and Discover’s headline reads “Ant from Mars Offers Clues to Insect Evolution.”

Instead, the fundamental problem is that most non-biologists don’t understand what evolutionary scientists do.  Journalists may or may not understand evolution, but they have to write for the untrained public.  So the main point is too often dumbed-down to a simple, yet irrelevant, “Darn, that’s strange”.

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