Thursday, October 12, 2017

Figuring things out

Recently I published an new paper describing the genus Phanolinopsis and describing four new species. While writing a paper like that is pretty straight forward once you have figured things out, it usually takes a lot of time to figure things out.

Many many years ago I was visiting a natural history museum examining their collection of Xanthopygina beetles. Among the materials was a specimen of Phanolinopsis erythros.

Phanolinopsis erythros Chatzimanolis
I was puzzled. At that time, I was working on the revision of Nordus and Philothalpus and had finished the revision of Elmas. Let just say that my understanding of Xanthopygina was limited. I asked a Very Important Rove beetle systematist at the museum there what they thought of the specimen and they looked at it and said: "Yes, I have examined it, I could not figure it out, I doubt you will".

Well, they were right in a sense, it took me 11 years to figure it out. I guess what I am trying to say is that figuring out things in taxonomy sometimes takes a very long time. So while writing a taxonomic paper is 'easy', deciding what goes in that paper may take a lifetime. I have been lucky to be able to work with Xanthopygina for ~17 years now, so I had the time to "figure things out". But I am afraid, the way we do science nowadays does not usually allow for having that much time of working uninterrupted* on a project or taxonomic group.

On an unrelated note, on the same paper I named a new species after my daughter.

Phanolinopsis norahae Chatzimanolis
* Over the years,  I have worked on other things other than Xanthopygina, from phylogeography to fossils, but I have never stopped looking at these beetles. 

Thursday, May 4, 2017

The end of Staphylinidae sensu stricto?

I recently submitted a book chapter on fossil rove beetles where I had the following footnote:

" One could argue that we have overextended the meaning of “Staphylinidae” since the family is not very well defined and the subfamilies themselves can probably be elevated to the family status."

The editors kindly asked me to remove it from the book chapter because they did not want to open Pandora's box (their expression, not mine).

So instead, I am just going to put it here, on this blog.

Over the last several years more and more ex-families (eg Scydmaeninae) are getting sucked into Staphylinidae and one could argue that Silphidae should be added soon. Have we reached the point where we need to evaluate what Staphylinidae really is and perhaps elevate "Staphylinidae" to a superfamily? Unfortunately, for some people this is a numbers game ("the largest family of animals") and I do not see this happening any time soon.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Xenopygus species

Back in November I published a paper in Zootaxa with new species and synonymies for Xenopygus Bernhauer. There are a lot of stories that can be told about this paper and if you are skilled in reading between the lines you can probably guess some by reading the paper itself.

Xenopygus davidi Chatzimanolis
But I want to tell one of the stories here. This is the story of how sometimes we are unable to deal with the backlog of specimens (perhaps data in general) until something happens. For many years I had two new species of Xenopygus awaiting description in my Xanthopygina cabinet. This is not unusual. By a quick count, I probably have ~100 new undescribed species of rove beetles trapped in the cabinet in front of my desk. But taxonomists do not spit out species description despite being urged to do so many times because we want to put these new species into context. That context is typically a revision of a genus, a phylogenetic analysis or fauna checklist.

But back to Xenopygus. I was sitting on these two new species because properly revising the genus meant dealing with thousands of specimens of one of the most common xanthopygine rove beetles, Xenopygus analis. It also meant changing the generic concept of Dysanellus (one of the described species there belonged in Xenopygus). And it also meant dealing with some bad taxonomic decisions made in the 70s-80s.

Xenopygus pycnos Chatzimanolis

So I was waiting until, I do not know, I was ready to deal with them. The Xenopygus manuscript was probably no. 7 in my "in preparation" manuscripts. Well, that changed when Caron et al (2016) published a paper revising Xenopygus. I was not aware of that paper until it came out in Zootaxa. Which was unfortunate, because I would have told Caron et al. about all the problems mentioned above. Caron et al. published two new species that ended up being synonyms of taxa that had been described before. To their defense, it was almost impossible to figure this out unless they had seen photos (or examined) of every single species in Xanthopygina. But on the plus side, they dealt with the revisionary aspects of X. analis and that allow me quickly to publish the two new species and regrettably to synonymize the species they described as new.  

I guess the story here is that we all need motivation in our lives. Sometimes motivation to finish that manuscript comes from places we do not expect.