Author Archives: mld1

Can social media sites lead to the discovery of a new species?

We are all familiar with social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram, Flicker, Twitter, Youtube, Pintrest, Blogger, etc. We commonly think of these sites as ways for people to share thoughts, ideas, photos, interests, and news. However, how reliable are these sites for facts and discoveries?

Turns out they can be pretty reliable. Last fall Hurricane Sandy struck the eastern seaboard bringing mass destruction to New York and New Jersey. In a rare instance, Time Magazine released its Instagram to five photographers tasked with documenting the impacts of Sandy. Due to electrical inconsistencies, Instagram became the fastest way to inform the public of breaking news. During this time I was studying abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark and relied heavily on this outlet for updated information on the storm’s impacts. Times photographers used Instagram to make breaking news accessible to the public.

What about the flip side – taking information from the public and making it available to experts?

In 2011 this is how a new species of lacewing (Order Neuroptera) was discovered. Guek Hong Ping, who goes by Kurt, posted over 7,000 picturesof a variety of organisms (frogs, snakes, beetles, bugs, birds, and lacewings!) on the photo sharing website Flickr. (If you have time, I encourage you to check out his great pictures.) A close-up of a green lacewing with unusual black lines and blue flecks on its wings caught Shaun Winterton’s expert eye.

Green lacewing - Semachrysa jade - discovered through collaboration over social media (Photo by Guek Hong Ping)

Winterton, a senior insect biosystematist (meaning he studies taxonomy based on the study of genetic evolution of populations) at the California Department of Food and Agriculture, suspected this was a never before described species of lacewing. He promptly contacted Kurt but was disappointed to learn that the lacewing had stuck around only long enough to be photographed. Without a specimen to fully analyze and serve as the type, it would be impossible to determine if this truly was a new species.

As I learned this past summer through my internship at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History type specimens are the golden key. They serve as the first example of a named species and represent the defining features of the taxon. So without a specimen to study and compare to already identified lacewings, this “new” (I’m putting new in quotes since this species is merely new to being recognized by the scientific community and not new to the world) species could not be confirmed or named.

Fortunately for the scientific community, a year later Kurt returned to the Malaysian forests where he had first photographed the insect and captured the lacewing of interest. This lucky insect was shipped to Steve Brooks, a research entomologist at the Natural History Museum in London. He compared it to the lacewings in the museum’s collections and found a match with an unnamed specimen already in the collection. The findings and details of this newly named species, Semachrysa jade were published in 2012 in the scientific journal ZooKeys.

A point of controversy for many general readers of this discovery was that the lacewing was named not for Kurt but for Shaun Winteron’s daughter, Jade. However, I think it’s important to keep in mind that we don’t know all the details concerning the naming process. Maybe Kurt wasn’t interested in having the lacewing named after him (although, I’m not sure why he wouldn’t be – that would be pretty awesome).

I think the “discovery” of the new lacewing species via a personal Flicker account is an excellent example of how social media connects people and facilitates collaboration between scientists and “ordinary” people. The world seemingly is becoming more and more connected via smart phones rapidly sending texts and snapchats, social media serving as the host for photos, comments, and opinions, and people constantly checking and rechecking these sources. The example of the Times using social media to make news available to the public reveals how major news agencies are realizing, accepting, and utilizing social media sites to reach their audiences. While Kurt most likely did not intentionally post the picture of the lacewing on Flicker to be identified as a new species, this shows how social media successfully connected people of different backgrounds and achieved a scientific discovery.

This story should give budding naturalists and researchers alike hope that by sharing their discoveries with the world they can discover and learn together. While I do not have an extensive Flicker account dedicated to pictures of interesting and awesome organisms (as Kurt does), I consider this to be a telling tale. By sharing images or writings of what you’re interested in you can reach out to others either knowingly or not and could possibly discover a new insect species! If this ever happens to me, I know that I’ll think extra carefully about the name.


Welcome Back to an Often Overlooked World

The hunt was on. It started on a sunny September morning in room 124 of the Math/Science building. The prey: any insect. The method: catch, kill, pin. The prize: an outstanding insect collection comprised of representatives from 10 orders. To accomplish this required a natural ability and also a keen, discerning eye.

At first I felt ridiculous, peering into bushes, along stems, and under leaves with the intensity of a seven-year-old on a scavenger hunt. However, in a short time I relaxed and began to balance my intense hunting with everyday life. As more time passed, it became second nature for my eyes to pick up on a subtle twitch or flash of color on a fence, a leaf, or a stalk, which indicated the presence of my prey. Then it was only a simple matter of excusing myself from any given conversation, swiftly retrieving my kill jar (a glass mason jar containing ethyl acetate), carefully positioning myself with respect to my target, and smoothly bringing the jar and lid in a dual motion together over the unlucky insect. Then I returned to the conversation, which more often than not had come to a halt because my peers where standing completely still, incredulity etched on their faces.

The questions they asked were varied, but the most common was “How did you see that?!” In truth, I saw the movement because I was subconsciously looking for it. Advanced Biology’s insect collection assignment added another dimension to my view of the world by teaching me to see what is always present around us but often overlooked. 


That was four years ago during the fall of my senior year in high school. Following the insect collection assignment, I was adept at noticing the subtleties of the insects all around us. However, no longer tasked with the necessity to catch and kill these creatures, I found myself slipping back into society’s norm of obliviousness to nearly any and all things that don’t demand our attention. Thinking back to that time, there wasn’t a day where I didn’t see insects – whether I was intentionally looking for them or not. During the four-year hiatus, I rejoined the majority of society, only acknowledging an insect’s presence when it drew blood, smacked us in the face, or awed us with its beauty. (Now this isn’t entirely true – the fieldwork I’ve done in New Mexico reawakened my eye for spotting insects.) Signing up for Insect Bio and the lab course welcomed me back into this often-overlooked world.

So, what do you see in this picture? If you said, “Nothing but the Will Rice Quad.” you would be like the majority of my peers. What the keen eye (and a better camera) can pick out are several swarms of gnats moving in vacillating masses above the grass. Depending on the time of day, you can also see five to seven insects from the order Odonata in a feeding frenzy. Interestingly, dragonflies fall into two types of hunters: “hawkers” and “perchers” (Olberg et al. 2005). The hawkers continuously fly during the day to forage while the perchers land on the ground or vegetation and take off when prey flies by. Regardless of their hunting style, their method of prey capture is the same. Dragonflies approach their flying prey from below and rise up at the last moment to ensnare them in their extended legs (Olberg et al. 2005). From my observations, the quad’s gnat feeding dragonflies are hawkers.

I now make the conscious decision to walk around the quad, whereas some of my less observant peers insist on cutting across it oftentimes swatting gnats out of their faces while spitting out small, mangled bodies.

Olberg, R. M., Worthington, A. H., Fox, J. L., Bessette, C. E., & Loosemore, M. P. (2005). Prey size selection and distance estimation in foraging adult dragonflies. Journal of Comparative Physiology A191(9), 791-797.