Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Why are media insects misidentified?

September 12, 2011

Here’s a book cover that reliably sends entomologists into hysterics:
Not a Bee. And yes, this is a real book.

What’s so funny?

Well, that’s not a bee. In fact, this insect last shared an ancestor with a bee over 350 million years ago. That’s before dinosaurs. According to an index I whimsically invented last year, this cover measures a taxonomy fail of 58.

How does a fly end up advertising a book whose target audience, not to mention the mortified authors, will instantly recognize as a mistake?

Publishers, photo editors, and stock agencies- those entities that purchase from image creators- trust photographers to correctly identify their subjects. This system works well enough so long as image creators stick to broadly recognizable categories. A travel photographer isn’t going to misidentify the Eiffel Tower. When the subject matter turns technical, though, photographers are often out of their depth.

Our planet holds anywhere from 3 to 80 million species of insects. That’s a lot. There are so many we don’t even know within an order of magnitude the full count. Beetles, flies, wasps, crickets, cockroaches, mantids, moths, termites, bugs, dragonflies, lacewings, thrips, fleas- the list goes on. Insect identification is a difficult and technically-involved activity, one that requires years of practice. People who diagnose insects

professionally hold advanced degrees, usually with expertise in just one small taxonomic enclave. The field is so complex that an expert keeping track of the thousands of species of mayflies is often no good at dragonflies. A beetle expert might be adept at ground beetles, in some genera, but useless at weevils or ladybirds.

Photographers, too , can be extremely specialized. All that time spent learning how to create stunning imagery is time taken not learning taxonomy.

This figure is wrong, because I know a lot of artistically talented taxonomists, but you get the point. People who specialize in creating breathtaking images aren't necessarily any good at taxonomy.

The result is photographers who don’t know what they’re shooting, photo researchers who aren’t trained to screen science uploads, and stock libraries that fill with inadequately identified material. The blind lead the blind and a fly comes to illustrate a tome on bees. Such errors are common.

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