laphriini blog

taxonomy and ethology
of robber flies
as an avocation

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One More Species

February 19, 2012

Tonight I added re-done habitus photos for both male and female of Laphria sackeni (Banks). I had taken the shots several weeks back with the rest. But had forgotten to process the results. This will be the last species I photograph with the old setup, using halogen lights. I also may change how I place the specimens when they are being photographed, in order to reduce the amount of work removing the shadows and background. I'm not happy with most of the photos I've taken, and suspect that my technique may be subtly (or not so subtly) influencing the color balance. I am partially red-green color blind. Although I can see both colors, I'm not the best judge of color fidelity.

I noticed the other day that there are several species of eastern Laphria s. str. for which I have not prepared re-descriptions. I knew this was true for most of the western species. But I had forgotten about those in the east. I will try to start working on these again. One of my priorities is to get my review of the eastern Laphria s. str. "finished" to the extent possible, as quickly as possible. They are the one group here that is of interest to the ordinary insect enthusiast.

As an aside, I don't know if verbal descriptions are of much use in modern taxonomy. To my mind, their main attraction lies in their forcing the researcher to actually look at everything on the fly, and then record it. If you do this for ten specimens of each sex, which is what I did for the species in each of the two new genera, you can get some idea of the variation. As unlikely as it may seem, without this admittedly mechanical prop you can miss a lot.

On the flip side, within any one genus, most of the "characters" -- aside from termanalic ones, are color values and slight differences in body proportions. All of which makes the process routine in the extreme. And since in Laphria s. str. color can vary considerably, perhaps there especially the whole exercise is eventually less useful than one might hope. Together, these drawbacks can be a powerful damper on any projected schedule of description. In fact, the fastest way to stop working altogether is to initially limit oneself to verbal descriptions. It's also the fastest way to go to sleep.

On top of that verbal descriptions were first used at a time when drawings were expensive, and photographs of any kind--let alone in color-- had yet to be invented. Such descriptions had to stand for everything. Now they need accomplish much less.

I also find other people's verbal descriptions difficult to read, unless they have some bearing on the identity of a specimen I have right in front of me. And even then they are often tedious, as you have to dig more than you should to extract what you need. For this reason I believe that once you have completed the initial listing of character states, your next job is to summarize these as concisely as possible, pointing out unique states or combinations thereof, which identify that species as distinct. Remember, your goal is to help somebody identify something. Why make them work more than they have to? Probably the best place for character summary is a formal synopsis.

BTW, that goal--helping somebody identify something--explains why I am less than a big fan of both phylogenetic and molecular systematics. Don't get me wrong--both have a place--and I will even eventually post a phylogenetic analysis of the relationships of all the genera and species covered here--and maybe even with it a tutorial of the steps I used to run Phylip (a computer program), and an explanation of what these steps mean. But the place of systematics--considered as the science of relationships--is NOT to help normal people, or even normal professionals--identify specimens. It's to elucidate the relationships between species that have already been identified, named, and described. Without this prior identifying, naming, and describing--in other words, without taxonomy, both are empty exercises, cut off from their only roots in natural history. In other words, they are appropriate to well-studied and well-worked groups. Asilids are not in that category. I estimate that at least a third of the final tally of North American asilid species are currently undescribed.

In fact, by way of illustration we can take one of the objects of this site--Laphria s. str. I know more about Laphria s. str. in North America than anyone else who has ever lived, more even than Bromley. I can say authoratatively that that isn't much. I know for sure that there are five or six species that are obviously different from any that are described (I plan to describe them). And I suspect that about another ten are more-or-less cryptic. Yet I haven't a clue about how to distinguish any of them using genetalic characters of the male, which are right out there for everyone to see. I have only the fainest notion of where the larvae may live. With one or two exceptions, I can't say anything about the pupae . I know knothing about the phenology of the adults. I have no idea of what is found where, other than the most foggy outline. And so on. Not that any of this is impossible to get--it just takes lots of work, and it will take me years to bring their knowledge up to a point where it is comparable to what I do currently know about the species in Choerades and the two new genera. On top of that by now there are probably around 25,0000 specimens in various museums around the county, in need of an ID. I doubt if Laphria s. str. is in any way unique among American insects.

I've read a lot, and widely. Years ago I read a several volume work, The Decline of the West, by Oswald Spengler. In it, he coined the word "pseudomorphosis." As used by Spengler, it means the transformation of one culture, because of the influence of another, more powerful one, in ways that are not in line with its essential being. I think something similar can happen with disciplines. In particular, I think something similar has happened with taxonomy vis-a-vis systematics. Once upon a time systematics was merely an appendage of taxonomy, nothing more at worst than a fanciful exercise by old men, speculating on the relationships of their favorite groups, and at best some well-educated guesses on the same. It is all to the good that with Hennig it has been placed on a more scientific basis. And eventually, with phylogenetic analysis of molecular data, it will be placed on an even firmer footing. But systematics, no matter how high tech, will never be a substitute for classical taxonomy. You can't use cladistics to describe species, and without real-world, morphological correlates, you can't use molecular data to identify them. This will not change.

Yet today, taxonomy is a neglected appendage of systematics. Most professional systematists do not even acknowledge it is a separate field. In fact, most act as if is simply an antiquated precursor to the ultra-modern work they fancy themselves doing. This I can forgive -- after all, to accomplish anything, you have to believe wholly in the aptness of your task, and even I am not immune from seeing the beauty of molecular phylogenetics. But never-the-less it is a blindness, and as such it fits perfectly with the concept a discipline-based pseudomorphosis. That said, there are a few bright spots for taxonomy. One is the is recent availability of superb photo equipment at affordable prices, resulting in a slew of stunning photographs and formerly-unthinkable photo-based keys. Another is the easy accessibility of taxonomic literature on the web, both directly from authors and from archive sites like Biodiversity Heritage Library. And last, of course, the web itself, which is a powerful democratizing and leveling force. These three together have resulted in a renaissance of sorts in avocational taxonomy, mainly by professionals who are employed in related fields. And that can only be good.