Monday, September 17, 2012

Lady Gaga and a small wasp

Aleiodes gaga
A little parasitoid wasp goes through the news today. Not because it looks particularly different or has any features that make it somehow special. No - it bears a famous name: Aleiodes gaga. The small braconid wasp from Thailand has been named "in honour of popular singer and performer Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, known professionally as Lady Gaga". Not that there is any resemblance between the two (see images) although I consider it possible that one day Gaga returns the favor and appears in a corresponding costume.

The eponym
As usual the really important scientific message is well hidden behind the headlines. The wasp is only one of 179 newly described species of a single genus in a monograph published in September in Zootaxa. What makes this paper one that stands out is the way the authors approached the description of those species. It is a well known fact that the description of a new species is a time consuming process due to its thoroughness. Some taxonomists are trying to find ways to speed up the course of action without compromising quality. DNA Barcoding was one tool brought into the discussion early on and this new paper showcases how barcoding information for an extremely diverse genus of cosmopolitan wasps can be used to provide a framework, supplemented by minimalist morphology, to describe a large number of new species in a relatively short time. Interestingly, this study perhaps covers just a small proportion of the Thai fauna of Aleiodes. According to the authors there might be as many as 438 species in this genus in Thailand alone. With conventional methods species description would take decades. The turbo-taxonomy presented here might be a very good alternative.

What I find amusing is the fact that this was publicly announced by someone who is rather critical of DNA Barcoding and parts of the article in the Guardian do reflect some of the suspicion and hesitance this newly proposed way of doing taxonomy is met with. Unfortunately, Quentin Wheeler, the author of the article couldn't let the matter rest and closes his contribution with some pointed remarks. I am not going to comment on those. I only hope that one day everybody will be able to find back to objective scientific dialogue.

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