Inspired by the Are Headlines Hogwash? series at Dr. Carin Bondar’s wonderful blog, the editors at DSN (i.e. Kevin and I) have initiated a news series called Bull Patrol! Our goal is to call out the media for the getting carried away with headlines and reports, not doing their homework, making a mockery of colleagues’ work, and generally confusing the public.
This week’s rant centers on a flurry of media, e.g. CBC, on the “discovery” of “new” species from underwater canyon called the Gully, the Flemish Cap and the Orphan Knoll in the North Atlantic.
Dr. M: The issue here is that many of these purported new species are actually described. Indeed, a well-known expert on some of these organisms stated in an email to us that at least two of these species are known to science. This is not the first time I have seen press releases immediately after an expedition exclaiming the findings of “new species”. The problem is, and I am sure KZ will articulate this well below, is that describing an animal as a bonafide new species requires many years of work. I am leery of any press release or news article about a new species at the end of research cruise. I would also be leery of any scientific claim immediately following field work without vetting through the peer-reviewed publication process. Describing a new species is no different. Note to scientists: please be cautious about statements concerning new species. Often the press might not understand nor want to understand the difference between
- This is the first time we have ever seen this species at this specific place!
- Hey look! This is an unusual species only recently known to science and this represents an increase in our knowledge!
- Hey look at the biodiversity of this area!
- Holy Shit!!! This is a totally new species and I know that exactly because I spent countless years in the lab running genetics tests, looking over dusty old papers on all the species that look similar to this one, countless hours over a microscope looking at all the wee little bits that define this species, doing everything again to make sure I didn’t screw anything up the first time, writing up the paper, suffering through peer review, and years later actually publishing a new species name!
I am worried that when we claim to the media or the media interprets our statements of new species findings that we devalue taxonomists who actually do #4.
Kevin Z: While discovery of new species can be accelerated by a focused attention at the end of a research cruise, it often takes quite a long time between study and publication of the species names. Let me give you an example from my own work. In 2009, I published with my colleague a new species description of a shrimp from a hydrothermal vent habitat. This discovery really starts way back in 2005 though. I’ll spare you the details, they are are in the post I linked to above for those who are interested. But the short story is determined to be new species in Summer 2006, described by November 2006, Paper written and submitted by January 2007… crickets…. accepted with revision September 2007, revision submitted November 2007…. crickets… Final acceptance April 2008… crickets…. more crickets… sound of my telomeres shortening… published online March 2009, available in print edition April/May 2009. My point is that scientists don’t know if something is new fresh off the cruise. We were already to go to press with a what we thought was a new worm species once. Turns out after doing some genetics and scouring the literature, Japanese researchers described it 2 years before from a totally different location. Another example is the press releases of new stauromedusae species from vent sites at the East Pacific Rise a couple years ago. That was made by geologists on cruise while they were still out at sea. As someone who saw the very first vent stauromedusa (an upside down, stalked jellyfish) get collected in 2003, I could tell these were the same, the only difference being orange in color. Well it turns out they were orange because they were packed with gonad ready to spawn.
Dr. M has a good point that should be standard procedure for scientists coming off an expedition talking to the press. There are two interesting discussions though coming off from this in my opinion. The first being where is the line between relaying the excitement of discovery and not misleading the press and public. This is a tough call and certainly open to debate. But after a million-dollar taxpayer-funded cruise, there better something cool to talk talk about right? Something better be mind-blowing right? I’m sure there will be great science from every expedition in some form, but we might not know the interesting tidbits until well-after the cruise, or maybe not until there is a follow-up cruise.
The second being what is the appropriate message for the press to get out there. It is not strange nor unusual to find new species in the deep-sea. According to a PLoS collection on marine biodiversity that was just released today, for every species known 4 are undiscovered. “NEW SPECIES DISCOVERED” is not an interesting headline or topic, it tells no story and does not engage the reader or make the reader think. Being able to quantify what we do and do not know is a better story and instills a better sense of appreciation for the work of scientists. Sentences like “Many of the species collected are so new to science that they have yet to be named” are just plain retarded – a species being new to science by definition means we have not yet named them – and do not do any justice to the work of scientists in the field and the taxonomists who be studying whether or not these guys are, after all, new to science (and will appropriately append names to them).