The Accidental Taxonomist

Accidental Taxonomist title image sml

Dr. Thelma Finlayson, an emeritus professor at Simon Fraser University, will soon be celebrating her 100th birthday. In honour of this event, a half-day symposium was held at FSU a couple of weeks ago. The themes reflected Finlayson’s own research: insect biocontrol and taxonomy. I had been asked by the coordinator of the event, Dr. Elizabeth Elle, to give the final lecture in the symposium with a focus on biodiversity and systematics.  An honour, but also daunting! According to Elle, Finlayson became a parasitoid taxonomist by necessity rather than by original intent. Her main interest was biocontrol but in order to do that she had to become an expert in the taxonomy of tiny wasps. That story made me reflect on my own path to becoming a mite taxonomist.  I, too, had followed an accidental route, with my original interests being ecology and behaviour. Then I wondered how many of my colleagues were also Accidental Taxonomists.

About a month before the symposium I sent a request to three arthropod oriented listservs with different audiences: mite biologists, arachnologists working on taxa other than mites, and parasitoid hymenopterists.  This is the content of that request:

Dear XXX people: I will be giving a presentation on taxonomy at Simon Fraser University at the end of March, and as part of my seminar I would like to discuss how people end up being taxonomists.  In some cases, becoming an expert on the taxonomy of a group may have been a deliberate choice, e.g., as your M.Sc. project you may have chosen to revise a particular genus of XXX.  But in other cases one may have planned to do a project on behaviour or ecology, and discovered that you couldn’t complete the project without first learning the taxonomy of the group.   So, I would greatly appreciate hearing from those of you who have become local (or international!) experts in taxonomy of particular groups of XXX.  Here are my two questions: (1) for what xxx group(s) have you become a taxonomic expert? By ‘expert’, I mean expert at identification, not necessarily someone who also describes new taxa. (2) how did you happen to become an expert? Was that your first choice, or had you originally planned to work on some other aspect of that group’s biology? Many thanks! Heather Here are the results that I presented to a wonderful audience of Finlayson fans on 25 March. (1) Geographical distribution of respondents: 64 people from 23 countries, top five being U.S.A., United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and the Netherlands (see map below). map of Accidental Taxonomist replies (2) Here are the taxonomic orientations of those respondents:Accidental Taxonomist - replies broken down by taxon   (3) Out of curiosity, I checked the sex-ratio of the respondents. Strongly male-biased – but note the caveat (which is relevant to ALL of the responses, not just this one).Accidental Taxonomist - replies broken down by taxon and sex (4) And then the main question: how many respondents became taxonomists deliberately, as their first choice, or by accident or necessity? A few people didn’t answer this question directly, so I made an educated guess based on the stories associated with their responses. The answer is that about half of them were Accidental Taxonomists. Accidental Taxonomist - replies broken down by deliberate or accidental (5) My gut feeling after reading the responses was that non-mite arachnologists were much more likely to have chosen taxonomy as a career than were acarologists.  Araneologists seem to be born rather than made.  My guts were correct! One could also hypothesize, conversely, that mite biologists tend to be forced into taxonomy out of necessity, given the vast unknown that is acarine biodiversity. Accidental Taxonomist - replies broken down by deliberate or accidental and by taxon Although some taxonomists responded in a brief and businesslike manner, others provided long and delightful (or sometimes sad) stories of how their scientific careers had evolved.  After the symposium, a few people asked me whether I planned to publish the results.  Nope – can’t.  Didn’t have Human Ethics clearance to do this survey. It is totally illegal, contraband data.  Plus, the survey was not at all scientifically designed. So please take these results cum grano salis.


Worker ants are nasty creatures that are always beating up on other animals, possibly because of sexual frustration, or maybe they feel oppressed by their queens and take out their anger on non-socialists. Whatever the reason, their short tempers and vicious weaponry mean that ants are given a wide berth by most smart organisms.  This is probably why so many non-formicid arthropods try to look like ants. Here are two that we’ve collected as by-catch at Chamela.

(1) Pincher wasp (Dryinidae).  At first I thought “scary ant about to sting!”.  Then I thought “mantis pretending to be ant!”. Then “mantispid!”. Then “what the heck is it?”. Googling eventually brought me to the right family on BugGuide. Dryinids are both predators and parasitoids, which is quite unusual, and use their raptorial legs to grab hosts while ovipositing. Biology of this group is discussed here and here.

ant-mimicking dryinid wasp on leaf Calandria Trail Chamela Stn 19 Feb 2014

Dryinid at a distance.

ant-mimicking dryinid wasp Calandria Trail Chamela Stn 19 Feb 2014 A

Dryinid close up. Note cool raptorial forelegs.

(2) Lacebug (Tingidae). At first I thought “Ant carrying a dead ant”. But it was behaving in a non-antly fashion so I took it back to the Chamela collections room and looked at it under a dissecting scope it was clearly a true bug. The fenestrations suggest that it is a lacebug. If it is indeed a tingid, then as far as I can tell this is a sufficiently rare phenomenon as to be unGoogleable. Has anyone else observed lacebugs that look like ants? UPDATE: I sent some of these to Laura Miller (West Virginia Department of Agriculture), a tingid expert, and they are indeed lacebugs. What’s more, they represent a new species of Aepycysta. Thanks, Laura!

tiny ant-like lacebug Tingidae on leaf Calandria Trail Chamela Stn 19 Feb 2014

Tingid at a distance, looking like two ants (at least, that’s what it looks like to me).

tiny ant-like lacebug Tingidae Calandria Trail Chamela Stn 19 Feb 2014 A

Tingid close up. Note laciness.

In addition to these formiciform insects, we have seen a lot of neat salticids that do an excellent job of pretending to be ants.