Scenes from a party: an unnecessary beard; a knot of people in the kitchen; chatter; cold draft by the door; wine glasses bedazzled with baubles; cheese and crackers.
Extension Pete found himself at a departmental get together. Inane chit chat with coworkers was coupled with an inability to find a comfortable place to sit and an endless wanderlust to flit from conversation to conversation with people he normally avoided in the Ivory Tower environ.
Conversation finally exhausted, Pete turned to examination of the artifacts on display in the house-museum; priceless family kitsch, collections of items reminiscent of a lifestyle past, relics standing as silent boasts of faraway travels and grand adventures. Suddenly the universe twisted on itself and Pete was struck with a strong feeling of déjà vu. In the background of a photo on the wall—featuring happy revelers of a new year’s eve party four years past, one wearing a very encouraging dress—enclosed in a glass display case was an old fashion dry goods balance holding a giant old dictionary on one side, and a fossil ammonite on the other. A sign behind the dictionary declared “POSSUM” in tall, bold, golden letters that stood out against the earth tone surroundings.
Pete had a moment of panic, he had seen this before, the case, the balance, the ammonite. Why, how? But as suddenly as the panic came, it left. The slow gears of his genius mind (so he saw it) physically forced his confused muscles to move his head to the left where, across the room he saw that selfsame glass display case. There was the balance. There was the dictionary. There was the ammonite. “POSSUM” was completely obscured by the dictionary but when we squatted down he was able to read, “POSSUM brand U.S. NO. 2 Porto Rican Sweet Potatoes. Packed and Shipped by La Haye Bros. Leonville, LA.” Ah, the advertisements of yesteryear had flair. A portly young possum with a curly tail had placed its front foot protectively on a fat young yam.
The meat (not possum) came off the grill and into the kitchen. Suddenly people were heaping foodstuffs onto plates, moving through the line holding glasses, utensils, napkins, trying not to spill or slosh. People settled and Pete tucked into an interesting corn-based casserole. Conversation ebbed and flowed and finally hit upon the wine. Everyone agreed it was good. Where was it from? Temecula Valley, southern California. Funny story, a case had been bought years before, some drunk, then forgotten and the remaining two bottles were only rediscovered a few nights ago. Hurrah! Even stranger the crate seemed to have all but vanished, only a thin outer veneer was left, the slats could be crushed like pie crust.
At this Pete stood up, mid-bite. “Give me a second,” he said staring into nothingness. Then, a declaration: “I believe I have simultaneously discovered and solved a mystery!” Conversation stopped and all eyes focused on the buggy brainiac. “The mystery is, why is the dictionary getting lighter?” With a dramatic, sweeping motion he pointed an accusatory finger at the scale in the display case. Everyone shifted their gaze. “You can see in the picture on the wall,” shifting digit cum pointer, “that four years ago the dictionary and the ammonite were at the same level, you can read ‘POSSUM’ clearly above the dictionary. But now, the ammonite has sunk and the dictionary has risen. ‘POSSUM’ is obscured. The dictionary is lighter.”
Pete paused to let everyone work it out for themselves. The balance hadn’t broken, the stone ammonite wouldn’t have gotten heavier, so clearly this mess was all the dictionary’s fault.
“And, I have solved the mystery,” he paused, and with extreme elocution stated, “Cryptotermes brevis,” another pause, “Walker.”
Mostly puzzled looks, but at least one “Ah!” of understanding from the far right.
“Cryptotermes brevis,” stated Pete as explanation, “is a drywood termite; it doesn’t require contact with moisture or the ground. Subsequently they keep to themselves and can happily exist in an isolated piece of wood for quite a long time. They can’t survive in the wild here, but sometimes get shipped in. Their schtick is to completely hollow out whatever they are living in but leave a thin outer veneer. You don’t know they are there until you grasp their abode and it crumbles…” he shifted his eyes to the host, “like pie crust. The termites were in the wine crate years ago. They exhausted their food supply and moved on, some made it to the dictionary where they have been happily censuring the English language, one word at a time. Let us away to the other room and celebrate my victory.”
A cluster or curious gathered around and after opening the case Pete gingerly lifted the dictionary’s “lid”. A network of tunnels was revealed, full of scurrying, fat, white termites. Blunt faced soldiers with dark black heads heaved onto the outer lip, antennae twirling, spoiling for a fight. Gasps, congratulations all around.
Turning to the crowd Extension Pete said, “And this shall forever be known as The Case of the Disappearing Dictionary!”
We hear this all too often, but it is completely wrong. Of course it’s fun to say, mostly for two reasons: 1) it makes the speaker seem open-minded and wise, superior to the surrounding listeners; and 2) because it does that fun word flippy thing (which I’m sure has a specific name well known to literature teachers and poets).
Simple caveat: “Absence of evidence is not PROOF of absence” is absolutely correct. I think this is what most people mean when they use the other phrase.
Second caveat: An “argument from ignorance” is different beast all together. I’m interested in situations where good observations have been made, tests have been run, etc.
“Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” —let’s state that a different way. Failure to find evidence for thing X cannot be used as evidence that thing X doesn’t exist. Let’s apply this to a real word situation and see how it turns out.
Is there an elephant on campus? We have no sighting’s, no prints, no poo, no damage to vegetation, no noise. If “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” then how do we comment on the probability of the presence of an elephant on campus? In fact, all we have is “absence of evidence”.
Now let’s try the unicorn. Do unicorns exist? Should I be scared of a goring when walking home late at night? Should we put aside some unicorn habitat so they can run free and mate and have baby unicorns? There is an absence of evidence for a real unicorn, so again, how do we go about gathering evidence of its absence?
All this does not mean, however, that later evidence may come to light and we must refine our ideas about the universe. That is an understood aspect of the Thing we call Science. But as it stands, if we go looking, and don’t find anything, then yes, we can use that as evidence (but not proof) that what we’re looking for isn’t out there.
A knock at the door, an approaching smile, the door opens.
Says the man on the stoop: “Hello, I’m Extension Pete,” dramatic pause, “Entomologist Detective!”
“I know, I called you,” says an engaging young mother holding a wide-eyed baby on her hip.
“Good.” Not at all deflated that she wasn’t overwhelmed by his appellation, he continues, “What seems to be the problem?”
She invites him in with the wave of her hand into an empty house full of boxes. “We just closed on the house last week and started moving in. A couple days ago the baby and I moved some boxes in, and when we got back to the old house she had some fleas on her. It was weird, I caught them with tape, and then, I don’t know, there’s just so much going on, I forget about it. But then it happened again yesterday!”
The excited young man is snooping about the house, peering in corners and closets, gently probes a box marked FRAGILE! with his boot, hears some tinkling, and retreats quickly.
Eye contact: “Any pets at your other home? They might have picked something up from the neighbors.”
“No pets. No cats or dogs,” shake of the head, “We’re planning on getting some though; children that grow up with two or more pets tend to have fewer allergies,” coos at baby.
Authoritatively, “You should get a llama. They’re the Gentle Camel.” Resuming inquisition, “Are there any pets here, in the house or maybe strays that live under the house, in the neighborhood?”
“No, no pets in the house. The last owners had a cat, but they’ve been gone for months. I haven’t seen any strays in the neighborhood. But the baby hasn’t been outside. I carry her from the car to here and then put her in her chair or let her crawl around.”
Lifts gaze from a box with the overly Dickensian label “Christmas Past” and shifts attention back to mother and child. “Whereabouts has the bundle of joy been crawling?”
Mother leads the way, pointing from spot to spot in various rooms, comments on cute things child did while in each spot: had fun in Kitchen slapping linoleum and listening to resulting sound; frightened and intrigued by border between linoleum and tile of utility room; overcame previously mentioned fear of tile and entered utility room to gain safety of mother’s ankle; use of traction provided by carpet in back bedroom to produce sudden bouts of speed crawling.
The tour ends. A grandiose statement from the young man: “I believe I have solved the mystery. But first we should celebrate with some homemade root beer. I shall return.” Exit Extension Pete.
Return, doorbell, greetings, bags on counter in kitchen, root beer extract, sugar, dry ice, mother sets about finding/cleaning a pitcher. Root beer is made, chitchat, baby is entranced by vapor. After the glasses are drained, “Well, that should be enough time, let’s go check,” and our sleuth leads the way to the back bedroom, opens door, peers in.
Scattered over the floor, a few remaining chunks of dry ice sublimate away quietly. Several glue traps rest sticky side up on the floor, each bespeckled with fleas. The good mother’s expression is translated as, “What sorcery is this?!”.
The reveal: “Fleas has a life cycle similar to the butterfly. There’s an egg, then a larva—a squirmy, wormy thing like a caterpillar or grub.” Eye contact to make sure she was following, hand gestures for emphasis. “Once the larva gets big enough it spins a cocoon and becomes a pupa, just like a butterfly or moth. Eventually the pupa becomes an adult flea. But fleas are professional parasites; they aren’t at all interested in being adults unless there is something to eat. If there is no physical movement, heat, or carbon dioxide an adult flea can hang out in the cocoon for more than three months. These fleas are leftovers from the previous owner’s cat. Once everyone moved out, they just sat tight waiting for someone else to come along.
“Fleas are in carpets, rugs, or cracks against the wall, not on tile or linoleum. The baby provided all the stimuli needed to wake the fleas up, and this is the only place the baby has been where some could be hiding out. Voilà: fleas on a baby. The carbon dioxide from the dry ice woke the rest up. Mystery solved and confirmed.” Big grin.
“That’s amazing!” Retreating from room entrance, “How do we get rid of them?”.
“Well there are any number of chemicals, you could steam clean the carpet, you could pull it up and put down hardwood. Probably you don’t have to worry about immature fleas, those have either died or become adults. That should make control easier.”
“You’re amazing Extension Pete.”
“I know I am.”
“How can I ever repay you?”
“I need no payment. Just know that wherever there’s an entomological mystery I’ll be there, for I am…” dramatic pause, “Extension Pete: Entomologist Detective!”
What is the Best “Collecting” Strategy for an Arthropod Museum?
A species consists of a population made up of individuals. Much information about a species can be found in one specimen (especially morphology). However, information about a population (=variation) requires many specimens that exhibit the ranges of morphological and genetic variation, distribution, phenology, etc.
Considering that resources are limited, what’s a curator to do? Maximize number of species for morphological vouchers, or maximize specimens of a particular species to create a robust representation of the population?
Do both! Get pretty much everything.
Long answer 1:
When trying to identify an unknown, even a single identified specimen can be incredibly helpful. Endeavors that benefit greatly from even a single specimen include classes, key creation, field guides, voucher collections (physical and photographic), checklists, etc. So maximizing species has benefits.
Most arthropod collections have geographic and taxonomic strengths/biases (see this brilliant paper: Ferro and Flick 2015), that is, they are often dominated by local specimens. (How overlap between “museum range” and species range affects our understanding of a species’ distribution is an interesting idea, but not for this essay.) Retaining a large number of specimens of local species may add greatly to the overall understanding of a species’ population, after all, who else should be collecting these beasts? So maximizing specimens of species has benefits.
Perhaps the best way to answer the question is to consider its inverse: What shouldn’t a curator do? Which specimens are of the least value?
(Generally speaking!) The specimen that carries the most morphological information is the singleton. Every other specimen of that species provides less and less morphological information, they only contribute information on variation. The specimens that provide the most population information are the outliers (geographic, temporal, etc.) because they help define extremes. Therefore, the specimens that carry the least information represent a species, life stage, time, AND place that is already represented by another specimen in the collection.
Specimens of the same species collected at the same time and place are often called a “series”, usually defined as 5, 10, or 20 individuals. A series is an important tool for the arthropod collection. It assures that plenty specimens are collected to account for breakage, individual variation, sexes, cryptic species, and abnormal abundance of rare species. But a series can go too far (this is less true for alcoholic preservation where 50 specimens may take up no more room than one). Maybe pointing 100+ ptillids from a single litter sample, or 1000+ throscids from an emergence study is unnecessary (the author is guilty of both).
Perhaps the best strategy for a collection manager is to maximize both: 1) the number of species; AND 2) specimens of a particular species, but work to keep redundancy of those specimens below a maximum threshold, and therefore not squander resources on “lower value” specimens.
Long Answer 2:
Not long ago museums had exclusive (more or less) resources such as museum workers, specimens, literature, etc. A user had to travel to the collection to use the resource. And, even though it seems obvious, the collection either had the resource or it didn’t (getting the resource, even a paper, took time and money).
Digitization of information (and all that that entails) has changed the landscape of cost and access to materials. For example, to peruse The Canadian Entomologist a reader no longer needs to travel to a museum or library—and to possess The Canadian Entomologist a collection no longer needs to have actual copies. It makes little sense to purchase Volume 1 (1869) when it is available for free online. (I’m not saying don’t expand your library, just make wise decisions.)
For collections a “resource spectrum” has developed. One end consists of resources that are fully digitizeable and can be created, duplicated, and/or passed around with ease including specimen label data. The other end consists of those things which cannot be digitized: the smell of naphthalene, a rousing debate over lunch about whether termites are cockroaches, and above all, physical specimens.
Digital “shadows” of specimens can be created, label data, photographs, DNA, etc., but an actual specimen cannot. The cost of obtaining specimens will almost certainly increase with time. Paperwork associated with obtaining, transporting, depositing, and holding a specimen has increased greatly. (These delusional handicaps placed on researchers and institutions are an important and too often overlooked cost/impediment to collections and research, but that’s a topic for a different essay.) The point is, from the standpoint of a multigenerational collection, now is probably the best (cheapest) time to obtain specimens (and other non-digitizeable resources).
As was mentioned above, even a single specimen provides a lot of information about a species. Additionally, a collection either has a specimen, or it doesn’t. Borrowing a specimen from another institution costs time and money. (Enormous amounts compared the first edition of The Canadian Entomologist. Cost to download the first edition of The Canadian Entomologist = $0.00. Cost to mail a package = $10.00. Therefore mailing a specimen is infinity percent more costly than downloading a free paper. That’s just math.)
In this scenario, increasing species diversity is the best strategy for small or extremely resource-limited collections. Population level information, such as distribution, phenology, etc. can be supplemented through other online specimen-level databases (but beware! see paper cited above).
My overall proposal is that museums should ACTIVELY work to increase their taxonomic holdings AND actively work to help increase the taxonomic holdings of other museums.
Now is the cheapest time (cost will only increase in the future), and actual specimens have clearly emerged as the highest “value” artifacts in a collection (because they are non-digitizeable). It is not inappropriate to imagine a future where all midsized and larger museums have one or more representatives of every order or family of insect, arachnid, etc. known on the continent, or even representatives of every genus (or species of the smaller orders: the 13 smallest orders in NA north of Mexico have a total of 511 spp. Five specimens of each species = 2,555 specimens, or 0.2555% of a million specimen collection.)
Something to mull over…
Tales of creation abound. The Christians took care of the entire universe and all the messy bits in it in a couple of neat pages, no need fooling about with fancy explanations, they had a schedule to keep. While the Greeks and Romans took a long lazy walk and told tales of big picture events, like the origin of the world, and other things, like the tale of some god cavorting with three mortal sisters while the god’s wife was home doing the laundry, and when the wife found out about the cavorting she cursed the sisters who then prayed to another god for deliverance and were saved from certain death when the second god turned them into that bunch of flowers over there on the left of the path just behind the rock with a dent in it. Oh, there are four flowers? Well, I stand corrected; there must have been four sisters.
Well, why not some new tales of creation? And why not about the little things?
Carl the Brewer
Carl was a brewer and he was the best. In those days of course, no one much traveled more than three to five miles from where they were born, and in the relatively low population density area, market forces being what they were, supply and demand, etc., Carl only had about two competitors, and one of those was a milk maid (not for a long while, but she liked to keep up the pretense, being unmarried and all) who occasionally forgot and left the milk out in the sun, and then tried to pass it off as “udder wine”. So, being largely ignorant of any competition beyond the distance that, say, an overeager locust might travel in a good swarm, Carl was free and easy with his boasts. “I’m a brewer,” Carl would say, “and I’m the best.”
One day there came to Carl’s brewery a traveler who was a god in disguise. At this point we know something bad is about to happen to Carl, but just for a second, let’s break from that and ask some simple questions: why travel; and why the disguise? You’re a god, surely you have some better way to get from point A to point B than taking the non-hopping kangaroo express. Fly. Not a flying god? Hitch a ride with a flyer. Conjure up a horse, or elephant, or camel on which to ride. Wink out of one space-time locality and pop into another. Bicycle.
But more importantly, why the disguise? Here we have a god, gussied up like not-a-god, and when he’s not treated like a god, but is in fact treated like not-a-god, he’s gets all upset about it. Well what did you expect? It’s as if you’re deliberately setting people up. There’s a sign, a waiter with thin mustache, table cloths, salt and pepper shakers, napkins, menus—How dare think this is a restaurant!—shouts the not-a-waiter in a French accent when you ask about the specials. So these gods are just pretty much narcissistic bullies. And not very inventive ones at that, cursed to be forever thirsty and can’t take a drink, that’s nice, but it’s got nothing on potato chips.
The digression was pretty lengthy, so let’s try to catch up quickly: “I’m a weary traveler, I’ll have a beer.” “Here you go. I brew the best beer around.” “Wanna bet?” “Sure!” Competition.
Now at this point we don’t know if Carl wins or loses. Occasionally the mortal outdoes the god and of course gets cursed anyway. The general rule of thumb when competing with gods is: don’t. Unless you’re in a boy band or on a morning variety show.
It turns out Carl’s water, bark, and malt wasn’t quite as good as water, hops, and malt (and where do “hops” even come from? A village 15 miles away?! That’s a week’s journey and you’ll likely be killed by bandits!). So carl was cursed by the bully god who declared that he and his descendants should never brew good beer, try as they might. The brewer became short and squat and black. He grew a tail and lives in a cave in the ground and when he’s disturbed he emerges and serves his foe, not beer, but vinegar. And that is the story of where vinegaroons came from.
Here’s a way they could have put the big pieces on top of Stonehenge.
Let the giant rock lay on the ground.
Dig a hole in the ground under each end.
Build a giant wheel around each end so the rock goes through the wheel about halfway between edge and center. The distance from the top of rock, in this position, to the top of wheel should be greater than the end height of the bottom of the rock above the ground when it’s in place.
Put an axle through the center of the wheels. If the wheel is a clock, the axle is where the hands attach and the rock is at 6 o’clock, put in poles between the wheels at 9, 12, and 3.
Attach to the extra poles a trough that can rotate around the pole.
Fill all the troughs with rocks and water until you get even mass all the way around the axle. As the wheels rotate the troughs rotate to stay upright and don’t spill.
Roll the rock into place. In fact, it might be easier to place the top piece first, then set the bottom pieces and dismantle the apparatus later!!!!!!!!!!!
With the right kind of launch pad they could have locked up two pieces (positions 3 and 9) or even three (positions 3, 6, and 9), but getting them unloaded would have been difficult.