Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The frustrations of describing new species

I sometimes feel frustrated at the difficulties inherent in describing new ant species. Especially when they seem to be so prevalent. I myself am 100% sure that I have found at least six new species; the actual number is most likely quite higher. But what to do? It's such a chore to describe them and I have so many other things to do that they get pushed aside. And the general consensus in the ant world seems to be that it isn't worth describing a single new species. Much better to revise an entire genus. But who has time to do that? And the truth is that my new species may just as easily have been "discovered" by some other myrmecologist who also hasn't had the time to describe them.

But I suppose it could be worse. This was brought to mind this morning as I read about a recently described new species of plesiosaur. I say recently described, but not recently discovered. According to the article (published in the May 25, 2006 issue of Nature), it has taken 40 years to describe this thing. It took seven years just to dig it up and assemble it. After that it mostly just sat around since there was no money available to get the appropriate references, travel to museum collections, etc. The new species was finally described this month (T. Sato, Y. Hasegawa and M. Manabe. Palaeontology 49, 467–484; 2006). Describing new species might be a pain for myrmecologists, but at least what you're describing still exists, doesn't have to be constructed from random parts found in the ground, and doesn't need a crane to put together. I should count my blessings. The authors lament the lack of funds available for descriptive work. Amen, brother. The past couple of years seem to have had an upsurge in interest in biodiversity and the cataloging of all the species on earth. But I can't say any of these things seem to be resulting in actual money being given out to people involved in descriptive work. There are large grants being given out to institutions (PEET, for instance) but I don't know of any grant that I, as an individual, could apply for that would assist me with my work. There are all sorts of websites online now trying to put out lists of every species on earth but here I sit with a bunch of new species and I basically have no reason in the world to do anything about it except maybe a personal desire to further science and the satisfaction derived from giving something a cool name. And at this point in time, that's just not enough.

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