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Why are media insects misidentified?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Here’s a book cover that reliably sends entomologists into hysterics:

Not a Bee. And yes, this is a real book.

What’s so funny?

Well, that’s not a bee. In fact, this insect last shared an ancestor with a bee over 350 million years ago. That’s before dinosaurs. According to an index I whimsically invented last year, this cover measures a taxonomy fail of 58.

How does a fly end up advertising a book whose target audience, not to mention the mortified authors, will instantly recognize as a mistake?

Publishers, photo editors, and stock agencies- those entities that purchase from image creators- trust photographers to correctly identify their subjects. This system works well enough so long as image creators stick to broadly recognizable categories. A travel photographer isn’t going to misidentify the Eiffel Tower. When the subject matter turns technical, though, photographers are often out of their depth.

Our planet holds anywhere from 3 to 80 million species of insects. That’s a lot. There are so many we don’t even know within an order of magnitude the full count. Beetles, flies, wasps, crickets, cockroaches, mantids, moths, termites, bugs, dragonflies, lacewings, thrips, fleas- the list goes on. Insect identification is a difficult and technically-involved activity, one that requires years of practice. People who diagnose insects professionally hold advanced degrees, usually with expertise in just one small taxonomic enclave. The field is so complex that an expert keeping track of the thousands of species of mayflies is often no good at dragonflies. A beetle expert might be adept at ground beetles, in some genera, but useless at weevils or ladybirds.

Photographers, too , can be extremely specialized. All that time spent learning how to create stunning imagery is time taken not learning taxonomy.

This figure is wrong, because I know a lot of artistically talented taxonomists, but you get the point. People who specialize in creating breathtaking images aren't necessarily any good at taxonomy.

The result is photographers who don’t know what they’re shooting, photo researchers who aren’t trained to screen science uploads, and stock libraries that fill with inadequately identified material. The blind lead the blind and a fly comes to illustrate a tome on bees. Such errors are common.

Anyway, you may be wondering why I bring all this up now.  A major new insect iPad app, Mini-Monsters, was released yesterday for the bargain price of $2.99. The scanning electron micrographs are impressive. A sample:

Caption from Mini-Monsters: "Lasius ants are common to a wide variety of habitats in northern temperate regions in both the old and the new world, although some also live in tropical regions"

The trouble is, these ants are not Lasius. They aren’t even in the same subfamily as Lasius. Eye placement, head structure, and abdominal apex indicate instead Technomyrmex, an ant separated from the captioned species by over 90 million years. Taxonomy Fail Index= 14.

I am not hopeful the system will improve. The current climate of decreasing publishing revenues does not bode well for stronger editorial oversight. Still, I recommend the following:

  1. Photographers should exercise humility when tagging their photos and seek help with difficult problems. Ten years ago, a photographer typically had a field guide or nothing. (ProTip: consumer-level insect guides are nearly universally inadequate to the task.) These days, taxonomic experts are just an email away, and several online sites (like BugGuide.net ) foster communication between experts and the public.
  2. Photo editors should show greater awareness of the disparity in expertise among image creators, especially when the subject matter turns to science. Not all photographers are Piotr Naskrecki, who is both an award-winning photographer and a leading taxonomic expert.
  3. Taxonomists could play a more active role in contributing images to stock libraries, perhaps complimenting the technical illustrations they ordinarily generate in the course of a study with a few artistic images intended for popular consumption.

In case you feel ripped-off that Mini-Monsters does’t show that Lasius ant you thought you’d be downloading, never fear. The App does have a real Lasius:

Caption from Mini-Monsters: "A parasitic fluke has infected this Formica ant."

Shame they misidentified it as a Formica.

Alex Wild About the Author: Alex Wild is an Illinois-based entomologist who studies the evolutionary history of ants. In 2003 he founded a photography business as an aesthetic complement to his scientific work, and his natural history photographs appear in numerous museums, books, and media outlets. Follow on Twitter @myrmecos.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. makinaro 8:21 am 09/13/2011

    Ouch. That bee book made me physically cringe.

    It’s interesting because all of the great insect macro-photographers I’ve seen really know their stuff. If you’re taking painstaking photos of flighty insects all day, I imagine you have a vested interest in knowing the difference between a honey bee and a robber fly. Which makes me wonder if this is more of an “art director fail” or “publisher fail” than a photographer one.

    While not always practical, I beseech publishers to find the photographers who have done their homework and give them money. Thomas Shahan is my favorite: http://thomasshahan.com/photos

    Cheers!

    Link to this
  2. 2. Alex Wild 8:34 am 09/13/2011

    makinaro- Thanks for your comment. There are a lot of bug-knowledgable insect photogs, but their work often ends up buried in the same stock libraries as everyone else’s. If photo editors fail to exercise careful oversight then misIDs accumulate.

    Funny you should mention Thomas Shahan’s IDs. I was chatting with Thomas just last weekend about his spiders, and he does it right: he confirms identifications with spider taxonomist Wayne Maddison when he is unsure. Exactly what nature photographers should do.

    Link to this
  3. 3. muscapaul 11:07 am 09/13/2011

    A quick check is often easily made if the media only realise what they are truly dealing with and where to go to then. Some of the media have found my http://www.diptera.info website and used it to their advantage for images of flies and midges. Several of the members that submitted their images to the Diptera Gallery have received request for their images to be used in textbooks and articles. With a huge userbase that includes many specialists there are not many identification errors that slip through (though no-one is infallible, let alone a website).
    Another issue that I have encountered is press releases to the media. These sometimes contain (taxonomic) facts that are pertinently wrong but as soon as they have been released and picked up by the media Pandora’s box is opened. The worst part of it is that it may well be releases of research institutes that focus on some aspects of a field and automatically they assume they know all about the whole field, or the PR office assumes the researchers do and make the generalisations for them without asking for feedback. As yet I have not found a way to close Pandora’s box…

    Link to this
  4. 4. MorganJackson 8:39 pm 09/19/2011

    Given the number of very good insect identification aids online (BugGuide, CJAI, Diptera.info, etc), there is little excuse why even the most entomophobic nature photographer can’t reduce their taxonomic failure index. Putting hours upon hours in the field to get the perfect capture, then hours and hours in the digital darkroom to make it just right only to blow the identification is pretty crazy.

    I’d argue most insects can be identified to the correct order in minutes using simple online tools, family in an hour or two, and then a genus or species ID in a day or so after contacting an expert or waiting for replies on BugGuide. In the big scheme of things, a pretty minor time investment for finalizing the “perfect shot”!

    Link to this
  5. 5. HBG_Dave 6:20 pm 09/23/2011

    “The current climate of decreasing publishing revenues does not bode well for stronger editorial oversight.”

    I agree with much of what you suggest here, but I find myself uncomfortable with the above statement. Usually one would expect an editor to ask the author to approve a cover image and to vouch for the veracity of the scientific identifications in a book or program. How does one end up with a mislabelled, false-coloured image of an fluke-infected ant clutching a leaf?

    I don’t think that stronger editorial oversight would alleviate the problem. It may be that some editors are not doing their jobs well or they don’t care if the bug is mislabelled, but even a careful editor has to rely on the expertise of their authors.

    Link to this
  6. 6. adityaponkshe 11:58 am 10/3/2011

    Free groups or sites/data on media can really make a shift in the involvement of more brains in different fields.As this article precisely mentioned one of the problem of authentication in doing above we can look-

    If some of the taxonomist/scientists from other fields also can voluntarily(or if possible for groups to generate money they can give some honorarium)invest a little time from their work forming some expert committee/group (it could be 1-2 people also), people can get more quality, authentic free access data on media. So that even the free access data, media data can also be considered worth as authentic, ‘publishable’ ‘data’ which certainly will be big addition and can payoff the cost for individual paid sites/ journals etc. For that such groups should approach experts.

    Link to this

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