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Compound Eye

Compound Eye

The many facets of science photography

Why are media insects misidentified?

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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.

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

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