Parasitoid wasp blog..

..or just what is it a PhD student does all day? Random snippets, in random languages, from life in the Turku zoological museum studying tropical ichneumonids. Read on to e.g. find out "how to become one of those PhD students", what happened to two innocent chilean frogs, and (eventually) which has the most species; Africa, America or Oceania.

15.2.2021 A brave but misguided attempt to solve a real problem

This is a long blog post. Sorry. Download it as a PDF here.

This is a tale of four taxonomic papers. Wait, hear me out! It's not as boring as that sounds. This is not (just) a sordid taxonomists' squabble, this concerns you! For anyone interested in biodiversity, there are quite a few interesting ideas along the way.

First the very short version. Some taxonomists recently suggested that new species should be described quickly, based only on DNA barcodes and a fuzzy photo. Others feel that this doesn't work: there's too little information on the new species, and it slows things down for everyone else. Frank and forthright discussion continues. Well, forthright anyway, very much so.

What's the difference?

When a new species is discovered, someone sits down and describes it. Normally this means they take a photo, tell what it looks like, tell how to recognise it (i.e. tell it apart from existing species), give it a name. Here's an example.

Some people felt this this takes too long. They suggested taking one single character, the DNA barcode, and giving only that and a photo. Here's what it looks like.

Not quite as informative, is it? The diagnosis just says what DNA sequence to look for. If base pairs 72-75, 163 etc are G, it's this species.

The four papers

Before we get into what this means, and why you should be interested, let's see the four papers I mentioned. These will introduce this new way of describing species, heavily criticise it, then ignore the criticism and do it again.

Meierotto (2018)

A few years ago, Sarah Meierotto published twenty new wasp species from Costa Rica in her master's thesis. She described them in two different ways: both the normal way (with descriptions, diagnoses etc), and a fast way using only DNA barcodes.

This is it. This is the proposed new way of describing species. But because we've got into the bad habit of thinking theses are not "real", it also had to be published as a paper.

Meierotto et al. (2019)

The "et al." are Michael Sharkey (Sarah's supervisor) and several experienced scientists in DNA barcoding and/or wasps. This is common practice; let the student do the thesis, then have experienced hands improve it for the paper. Although it has to be said, little improvement seems to have been needed! The thesis was already so finished, they seem to have basically published chapter 3 as this paper, and chapter 4 as another paper, with few major changes.

There are 18 new species. They can be told apart from each other based on the DNA barcode. That, and a single, mediocre photo per species, are all the information we're given. Apparently they can also be told apart from the fifty or so already described species, but we are not told how.

The rest of the paper is mostly devoted to arguing on behalf of this new "revolutionary" way of describing species. We are told that most species have still not been discovered. That at the rate we are going, they never will be. That this method, although it has its minor faults, is fast. And that more complete descriptions can be written later.

If you're wondering where two species disappeared (there were twenty in the thesis), no DNA could be got from them. So they've been left out.

Taxonomists reading this may ask "Didn't they already describe these species?". The answer seems to be.. yes. They appear to have accidentally described the same species twice. At least I can't find any mention that the thesis' descriptions would not be valid. But I may be missing something?

Zamani et al. (2020)

This is the point when I started to hear concerned talk in the museum's coffee room. We're very much into discovering the Earth's hidden biodiversity. Or to put it otherwise, we're the target audience for this method. New species? That's pretty much all of us, Alireza Zamani very much so. DNA barcoding? That's Varpu Vahtera. Tropical wasps? That's Ilari Sääksjärvi (and me too, for that matter). Feedback came in writing, and it was not positive.

First, the obvious mistake. The new species can apparently be told apart from the fifty or so already described species. But we are not told how. Not one word on what differences there were between the new and old species. How do we even know that these species really are new?

As for the method itself, there's nothing new about using DNA barcodes. What is new is only using barcodes and practically nothing else. What do you do if you can't get barcodes, or can't afford them? How can you then tell if your species has already been described? Going to happen a lot, especially to aspiring young taxonomists in the tropical countries where most undiscovered species reside. How about all the described species that have not been barcoded?

Oh, and if you are so tight for time, why did you waste time on mediocre photographs which don't even show the whole wasp? Is describing species even the bottleneck, we spend most of our time collecting the wasps, and writing descriptions barely takes any time at all? And others manage to give barcodes and other distinguishing characters without it taking a particularly long time.

There's more, but the overall message is clear. This method leaves out so much information on the species, it will slow things down instead of speeding them up. DNA barcodes are very useful but they are not a magic bullet which solves all problems.

Sharkey et al. (2021)

There are two ways you can react to strong criticism like the above (three, if you count ignoring it). You can learn from it: see to what extent it is justified and improve what you're doing. Or you can bat it away: state that you are right, the critics wrong.. and describe another 400 species with the same method.

It has to be said: this paper is sloppy. There's no kinder way to express it. And that's me writing this, I who have a bad habit of thinking the best of people. Less haste, more speed might have allowed the authors to at least read the criticism correctly. Which of course doesn't mean that their method would be wrong; that's a separate question. More about the sloppiness later, there might be understandable reasons for it.

The method is the same, except the photos are worse and the barcodes a bit better. We're given the whole barcode (not just those base pairs that differ).

We're told that the mistake in Meierotto et al. (2019) was not a mistake. The critics obviously can't be asking how the new species differ from the old, they must be asking for evidence that someone looked at the old species. We're not going to prove we visited the museums involved, thank you very much.

And then a long and rather unstructured response. Who cares about old museum specimens? When they've been barcoded they may "regain their value". Yes, simple COI barcodes can sometimes be misleading, but this shouldn't be more of a problem than for other characters. Yes, not everyone can barcode, but this is not a problem because we've done the barcoding for them, and anyways a minimum of $1000 is not that much. We can't give proper photographs because there's no time. We can't describe the species (beyond barcodes) because there's no time – and anyway, they'll just need redescribing when more species are discovered.

There's quite a bit more, but it boils down to: there's not enough time or money, this is the best we can do and at least it's a start. This is the future, like it or not.

Why should I care?

So some taxonomists are squabbling, what's new? The thing is, this is not just a discussion about the best way to write taxonomic papers, i.e. papers which no one ever reads. Decisions are being made that affect how we (humanity) find out about the biodiversity of our planet.

The problem that's being discussed, the taxonomic impediment, is a real one. The millions of species that inhabit the Earth are quickly disappearing, obliterated by the excess growth of just one of them, the human. And we can't do as much as we'd like to about it, because we don't even know that most of the species exist. How can you decide which forest area to cut down and which to save, if you know nothing about the creatures who live there?

And we know nothing. We guess that there are eight million animal species on Earth (or many million fewer, or tens of millions more). We've discovered about a million of them. This is the the taxonomic impediment: we are discovering who we share our planet with so slowly, that the species go extinct faster than we describe them.

It's a problem that desperately needs solving. We're like a hospital that's so overwhelmed, doctor's are making decisions without having time to more than glance at the patient. And 85% of the patients aren't even in the hospital records.

What Sarah Meierotto, Michael Sharkey and the others are proposing is one potential way of solving this problem, or at least making it milder. Save time by dropping everything from species descriptions except the DNA barcode. Use the time that's been saved to describe more species. What Alireza and the others are concerned about is that this won't save time: cutting corners like this will just create species "descriptions" that are useless, and make more work for everyone in the future.

I'll get back to this soon. But first, there's something that needs to be got out of the way.

That fourth paper

I've no problem with 3/4 of the papers. I really like the thesis: many theses are just for practice, this is an independent scientific work. The paper based on it is a perfectly valid presentation of a new idea. Except for that silly beginner's mistake, of not telling how the new species differ from the old. The criticisms in the third paper are perfectly justified and deserve proper consideration.

But then there's Sharkey et al. (2021). Some have even suggested that ZooKeys should have refused to publish it. And I can see why. It's sloppy. And it's arrogant.

The sloppiness, oh the sloppiness. If someone points out your beginner's mistake, of not telling how the new species differ from the old, how can you misunderstand and think they want proof you saw the type specimens? It's either intellectual dishonesty, or you barely glanced at the criticism.

Then there's taking the end of a sentence, stating "The authors did not expand on this criticism", and ignoring what the critics had to say. Let's look at more than just the end of that sentence, shall we:

"[Purely DNA‐based descriptions] will impair this science in developing countries which house most of the undiscovered portion of biodiversity, due to high costs and lack of staff and technology. Considering the status of taxonomy as a fundamental science, this would drastically affect other related fields of study and, importantly, conservation."

What this criticism means is that in those parts of the world where most of the undiscovered biodiversity resides, this approach will prevent aspiring young taxonomists from describing species (or even getting into taxonomy). Which will lead to species not being described. So we won't be able to do anything else, such as justify conservation areas. Glad to clear that up for you. Something that should have been totally obvious if you'd properly read the paper.

As for the arrogance, let's take the low-hanging fruit first. Naming a species after yourself? Not the done thing. Not even if one of the authors does it for another of the authors.

The rest of it is rather low-hanging fruit too. There are statements like:

  • Everyone should stop describing species without barcodes. (When it is pointed out that these "descriptions" are incompatible with the many species descriptions which lack barcodes)
  • Old museum specimens have little value. (When it is pointed out that these descriptions can't be compared to millions of historical specimens)
  • $1000 or more isn't that much, and anyone who can't afford it can write descriptions for the species we named instead. (At my study site in Uganda, that's close to a year's salary..)
  • This is a "democratization of taxonomy" which is probably why some conservatives oppose it. (Yes, now any American professor in Costa Rica can take wasps that others have collected, navigate the legal obstacles to DNA sampling, and pay for postage to Canada and sequencing..)
  • Identification keys might perhaps have a point some day for, I don't know, wasp-watching tourists or something, but by then everyone will have a pocket barcode scanner anyway.
  • "If there is any hope of overcoming the taxonomic impediment it will be achieved with the approach outlined here or something similar to it."

To be fair, much of the arrogance probably stems from being on the defensive. They presented a new idea which was not liked. Not one little bit. It seems that the criticism was too much to handle.

And to be even more fair, I noticed that they submitted the paper a few months before the criticism was published. Did they end up having to tack on a hasty response after submission?

It won't come as a surprise that I am rather.. unimpressed by this paper. But what about the idea it promotes? Should we reject it just because the way its presented raises warning flags? I'd say, no. People can reach the right result for the wrong reasons. Unlikely, but possible. Let's look beyond the faults to what the authors are trying (and failing) to clearly say.

Is this a good idea?

Is this the way to describe our planet's species? To give the information we need to solve the biodiversity crisis and stop the sixth mass extinction?


I'm not usually this forthright, but.. no.

Although there are mitigating factors. I'll get back to them.

Zamani et al. (2020) have really given the basic reasons why not. To recap: only giving a DNA barcode for each species may save you time, but will make it hard if not impossible for others to find out if their species is new or has already been described. It'll instantly rule out the majority of humanity from describing species, and probably the majority of specimens and species descriptions from being used. And it is doubtful how much time this saves, since the real bottleneck is collecting and processing the specimens.

Remember that overwhelmed hospital analogy? This is like solving the problem by giving every patient some painkiller and sending them home. Clears the queue, certainly. But doesn't actually help. And soon the patients will be back and your hospital (and perhaps other hospitals) will be even more overwhelmed than before.

Let's look at this from my viewpoint. I study tropical wasps. One of the planet's most diverse taxa in one of the most diverse and poorest known environments. I'm the epitome of the target audience for this method. And I don't get it.

I don't get why this is needed. It took me a year to collect wasps in Uganda. It took me three years to get the first subfamily (Rhyssinae) processed so it could be studied. Three years of sorting, giving each rhyssine its own label and databasing it. It took me a few weeks to figure out how to tell the species apart and write the first draft of the species descriptions. Why cut everything worthwhile, everything that makes a description interesting instead of just being a catalogue code, to save a week or two?

I don't get how this would work in the long run. I compared my rhyssine wasps to those species which had already been described from Africa. What would have happened if their descriptions had consisted solely of a DNA sequence and a poor photo? I'd never have described my species, that's what. It took me years to find out if I'm even allowed to do a DNA test by Ugandan law (long story, don't get me started on this). I would have needed something like $3000-$4000 to sequence all 450 or so wasps. That's more than I got in research funding the whole year that I started describing the species (admitted, there was a parental leave halfway). Only sequence some of them? But then I need to sort them into preliminary species to find out which to sequence, which rather defeats the whole time-saving bit. And how can anyone in Uganda use the results?

I especially don't get why anyone would want to do this. However much I may have focused on the biodiversity crisis earlier on, the main reason, the sufficient reason, to study these wasps is because it's interesting. In its own right. No one looks at the LBBs (little brown birds) of the insect world unless they are fascinated by them and want to learn more about them, and this method contributes nothing to that. To solve the biodiversity crisis? But fancy me going to the Uganda Wildlife Authority, stating "Your forest contains AGGCT and TAGATGC, please protect more of it.". It's hard enough getting bureaucrats to accept that insects might be worth something; Uganda is focusing on economic development and the focus is (understandably) practical. To find out how many species there are in the forest and get a paper out of it? But you don't need to name the species for that. Besides, how incredibly dreary.

What I can get is the worry that this would hinder taxonomy, not speed it up. Suppose you've just started getting interested in entomology. You've caught a couple of hundred wasps and are wondering if any are new species. Only to be told:

"Sorry no can do, because the experts, the people with all the resources and institutional backing, couldn't be bothered to give you a description. You'll have to do a DNA test."

At your own expense. For 200 wasps. Which may all be some common species found everywhere.

What do you do? Say "stuff it" and get into birds instead.

And why am I concerned about eager amateurs? Partly out of principle: I don't like the idea of taxonomy becoming a preserve of an elite. But also because the eager amateurs either are, or will inspire, the experts of tomorrow. Almost no one decides to become an expert on small tropical wasps. You don't walk into a career advisor's room and ask how to become a waspologist; you just end up becoming one because you got interested. It's something that just happens. But it is not going to happen if you can't even get started without DNA facilities and funding. This is true for Finland; it is certainly true for the tropical countries where taxonomy is still developing.

No, this makes no sense for me. Nor for most others either, judging by how people have reacted. Yet it must make some sense for Costa Rica, otherwise the people behind this idea would never have bothered to try it out. They're not beginners, nor incompetents, there must be something about the Costa Rican sampling which made this seem like a worthwhile idea to explore.

I suspect it is how the Costa Rican sampling is carried out. Costa Rica is one of the centres of tropical parasitoid wasp research. I am hazy on the details, but at least in the past much of the collecting has been done by volunteers; Malaise traps in people's back gardens, for example. Later, parataxonomists (non-experts whose wages are generally paid by NGOs or other outside funding) have done much of the actual hard work of inventorying the country's biodiversity. Parataxonomists collect the specimens, process them, then send them to the experts to identify. It's a massive undertaking that costs a lot but has also given a massive amount of data. It is perhaps natural that the expert taxonomists, faced with the unusual situation of more ready-processed specimens than they can handle, have started looking for ways to streamline things. And shifting the workload from the experts to non-taxonomists is a natural continuation of what has been done before.

I must say, though, that this comes perilously close to evading responsibility. (Assuming I'm not completely wrong about the above, which I may be) Large numbers of locals, volunteers and parataxonomists did all the hard work, then the experts with the institutional backing failed to do the final touches.

But let's be fair..

..this is not merely a bad idea that should be summarily abandoned. I feel it was definitely an idea worth exploring, and there are quite a few good elements to it.

First, there are identification keys. They complain time and again about how cumbersome such keys are, how they always have to be updated whenever new species are discovered, and you know what? They're right. It is very hard to figure out what characters are going to be useful to tell species apart, when most of the species are still to be discovered.

The solution is not, however, to give up and not bother with keys at all. They're needed. Someone has to trawl through the different species, figure out on everyone else's behalf how they can be recognised, and that someone is the expert on the creatures; the taxonomist. Specifically, whoever described the species that need to be identified. You can't outsource the job to DNA barcodes; for one thing, a DNA barcode is that worst of identification key characters, one which can't be seen easily at a glance.

The solution will have to be to make the keys relatively easy to update. I tried something like this when I described the African rhyssines: the key is based on a table with all the identifying characters. Find a new species? Simply add its details to the table, and add a character if need be to separate it from other species. Better than this is what Terry Berry and Simon van Noort did: upload interactive keys online, and give the underlying data so others can update the keys or make their own.

Second, they make a convincing case for DNA barcoding. (But not for only DNA barcoding) Yes, there's nothing new about giving barcodes for the species you describe, but they tend to be an afterthought, not used to full effect. I'm rather starting to feel that new species descriptions should include a barcode by default, unless there is a good reason not to.

What I might do in the future, if I can afford the money and time, is to take a whole subfamily of my Ugandan wasps and barcode the lot of them. Use that to split them into species. Then give the barcodes and some morphological data for each species. Basically what Sharkey et al. (2021) have done, except with other data than just barcodes, and without the pointless attempt to save a few days by not describing the species properly. And just perhaps, if two or three species are so similar in appearance I can't find anything except DNA to separate them, is it such a crime to say so in the key? All too often, we assume that we must desperately look for some tiny hair of the back of the hind claw to tell the species apart, when what we mean is "if you came here in the key it is one of these two species, but you'll need a DNA test to tell which".

A third, tentative idea. Should we separate naming a species from describing it? What they have in effect done is to name their species, but not describe them. Traditionally, the idea has been that any species that is named must also be described, since otherwise the same species will keep on being renamed over and over again. But there is something to the argument that once you've used DNA barcodes to split your wasps into species, it would be good to immediately give them a proper name instead of "DNAsp22". Just a thought, and my instinct says no, but I haven't thought it through yet.

A verdict

All in all, it is probably a good thing this idea was proposed. We do have millions of species on our planet whom we know nothing about. We do desperately need to know about them. And currently, we are hopelessly slow at doing so. This is a discussion that needs to be held. We won't do things better if we refuse to try new ideas.

Is it a good idea? No. Was it worth testing? Yes. Should we try out ideas like this in the future? Definitely, as long as we have the humility to abandon (or modify) them if they don't work.

I'd be horrified if this method came into general use, but there's a lot of food for thought in it too, which we can learn from if we don't fixate on fighting either for or against it. If nothing else, we've been reminded that things can be done in a different way.. and also that the current way of discovering our planet's biodiversity has its points.

7.10.2019 Two new species from Africa / Kaksi uutta afrikkalaista lajia / Två nya afrikanska arter

It took us a century to gather 34 rhyssine wasps from the whole of Africa. Then extensive sampling in Uganda caught 456 more. But it's still not enough!

[EN] Last August we published when and where African rhyssine wasps fly. Now we've published who they are. Two new species (go and check out the lovely photos!) and a complete list of all known specimens from Africa. Also utter amazement at how poorly we know the species with whom we share a planet. We also got rid of one species, we came to the conclusion Epirhyssa gavinbroadi is just an unusual E. uelensis.

So how do you read a taxonomic article like this? Short answer: don't read it all. Taxonomic articles are like user manuals, important but often boring. Look at the pictures, they are lovely. If you have an African wasp you can't recognise, look at the identification key. If you have a wasp you think you recognise, look at the diagnosis and see if it matches. Skim through it and see what is interesting.

People involved in this include: us authors (from Finland, UK & South Africa), several other museum curators (France, Belgium..), any amount of Ugandans, several funders (listed in the article), half the museum, students and even school pupils (sorting the samples). Takes quite a joint effort to describe an entire subfamily from the entire Afrotropical region!


[FI] Parisen kuukautta sitten julkaisimme tiedot siitä missä ja milloin afrikkalaiset porapistiäiset lentävät. Nyt julkaisimme keitä he ovat. Kaksi uutta lajia (katso hienot kuvat!) ja tiedot kaikista tunnetuista Afrikassa pyydetyistä yksilöistä. Sekä valtava ihmetys siitä kuinka huonosti tunnemme ne lajit joiden kanssa jaamme planeetan. Tuhosimme myös yhden lajin: päätimme että Epirhyssa gavinbroadi muistuttaa E. uelensisia niin paljon, että ne ovat sama laji.

Miten tällaista taksonomista julkaisua sitten luetaan? Lyhyt vastaus: ei kannata lukea kaikkea. Taksonomiset julkaisut muistuttavat käyttöohjeita: tärkeitä mutteivät aina kiinnostavia. Katso kuvia, ne ovat hienoja! Jollet tunnista jotain afrikkalaista porapistiäistä, katso määrityskaavaa. Jos luulet tunnistavasi, katso erottelevia tuntomerkkejä (diagnosis) ja tarkista täsmääkö. Yleisesti ottaen, vilkaise lävitte ja katso mikä näyttää kiinnostavalta.

Tämän tekemisessä on m.m. ollut mukana: me kirjoittajat (Suomesta, Britanniasta & Etelä-Afrikasta), useat muiden museoiden työntekijät (Ranskasta, Belgiasta..), ties kuinka moni ugandalainen, useat rahoittajat (julkaisun kiitoksissa lista), puolet eläinmuseota, opiskelijoita ja jopa koulujen TET-harjoittelijoita (näytteitä lajittelemassa). Vaatii aikamoisen yhteispanoksen selostaa kokonaisen alaheimon tiedot koko Afrikasta!


[SV] I augusti publicerade vi detaljer om var och när Afrikanska raspryggsteklar flyger. Nu har vi berättat vem de är. Två nya arter (kolla de fina bilderna!) och en lista på alla kända exemplar från hela Afrika. Och väldig förvåning över hur dåligt vi känner de arter som vi delar vår planet med. Dessutom avskaffade vi en art: vi kom fram till att Epirhyssa gavinbroadi är egentligen ett ovanligt exemplar av E. uelensis.

Hur läser man då en sån här artikel? Kort svar: läs inte allt. Taxonomiska artiklar är som bruksanvisningar: viktiga men ofta ganska så långtråkiga. Kolla bilderna, de är fina. Ifall du råkar ha en afrikansk stekel som du inte känner igen, kolla bestämningsnyckeln. Ifall du har en stekel du tror dig känna igen, kolla diagnosen och se om det stämmer ihop. Bläddra och kolla vad som ser intressant ut.

Följande har bland andra medverkat: vi författare (från Finland, Britannien & Sydafrica), flera kuratorer från andra museer (Frankrike, Belgien..), ett flertal Ugandeser, flera som finansierat arbetet (listade i artikeln), halva museet, studerande och skolelever (som sorterat insekterna). Att beskriva en hel underfamilj från hela Afrika är inget man gör ensamt!

14.8.2019 First results! / Ensimmäiset tulokset! / Första resultaten!

If you want to catch Ugandan forest wasps, catch them during the dry seasons. Based on figure 2 of our paper.

[EN] I came back from Uganda in 2015 with an astounding 100 000 parasitoid wasps. Now, we've finally managed to publish the first results, on the ecology of one of the subfamilies. There's so much to this paper I don't know where to begin, so I'll just list some main points:

  • Ugandan rhyssine wasps fly in dry weather, near dead wood in primary forest. That's the paper in one sentence.
  • Try out the wasp calculator below to find out how many rhyssines you'd catch for a given rainfall, forest type and amount of dead wood.
  • It's really nice to actually find out how tropical insects live. We can even make a guesstimate at the average lifespan of adult rhyssines, show that they probably parasitise wood-boring insects.. this is very much not what normally happens. Usually, we only know the species exist and that's it.
  • Extensive sampling, where we use lots of traps and keep sampling for a whole year, seems to be worth it. Huge sample sizes, coverage of different seasons and forest types, what's not to like? If you don't count four years hard work before you can publish your first results..

More details in the paper itself. You can also take a look at the press release and data. The paper's data even has photos of each trap and a research diary, I decided to gather all the information on the field work into one place.

34 pyydystä vuoden ajan (n.s. laaja otostus) antoi kattavan kuvan eri vuodenajoista ja metsätyypeistä. Malaisepyydys CCT1 Ugandassa.

[FI] Palasin vuosia sitten Ugandasta mukanani yli 100 000 loispistiäistä. Nyt julkaisimme vihdoin ensimmäiset tulokset, joissa esittelemme yhden alaheimon ekologiaa (englanniksi, mutta suomensin osan). Tähän artikkeliin tuli niin paljon sisältöä etten edes tiedä mistä aloittaa, joten listaan vain joitain tärkeimpiä kohtia:

  • Ugandan porapistiäiset lentävät sateettomalla säällä, koskemattomassa metsässä lahopuun lähellä. Siinä tuloksemme tiivistettynä lauseeseen.
  • Kokeile pistiäislaskimella paljonko pistiäisiä tulisi tietyllä sademäärällä, metsätyypissä ja lahopuun määrällä.
  • Tuntuu erityisen mukavalta saada tietoa trooppisten hyönteisten elintavoista. Voimme jopa arvuutella porapistiäisten elinikää, todistaa että ne (melkein varmasti) loisivat puun sisällä eläviä toukkia.. Tällaista tietoa ei todellakaan yleensä saada tropiikista. Yleensä saamme korkeintaan tietää että laji on olemassa, jos sitäkään.
  • Laaja otostus, eli kymmenien pyydyksien käyttö vuoden ajan, vaikuttaa kannattavan. Valtavat otoskoot, tietoa eri metsätyypeistä ja vuodenajoilta (kyllä, tropiikissakin on vuodenaikoja), mahtavaa! Kesti tosin neljä vuotta käsitellä aineiston siihen kuntoon että jotain sai julkaistua..

Lisää löytyy itse artikkelista. Voit myös tutustua suomennokseen, lehdistötiedotteeseen ja aineistoon. Aineisto sisältää jopa kenttäpäiväkirjan ja kuvia jokaisesta pyydyksestä, päätin kerätä kaiken tiedon kenttätöistä yhteen.

Raspryggsteklarna i Ugandas regnskog föredrar död ved. Denna hane (Epirhyssa ghesquierei) landade flera gånger på samma trädstam (Uvariopsis congensis), troligen spanande efter honor.

[SV] År 2015 kom jag från Uganda med en förbluffande 100 000 parasitsteklar. Nu har vi äntligen lyckats publicera de första resultaten, där vi beskriver en underfamiljs ekologi (på engelska, men jag har översatt en del till svenska). Det finns så mycket i artikeln att jag inte ens vet var jag borde börja, så jag listar bara några huvudsakliga punkter:

  • Ugandas raspryggsteklar flyger när det inte regnar, och föredrar död ved i naturskog. Där har vi hela artikeln sammanfattat med en mening.
  • Testa stekelräknaren för att ta reda på hur många steklar man skulle få för givet nederbörd, skogstyp och mängd död ved.
  • Känns häftigt att få reda på hur tropiska insekter lever. Vi kan t.o.m. gissa på raspryggsteklarnas livslängd, visa att de troligen äter larver som befinner sig i död ved.. sådant här information får man vanligtvis inte (läs: nästan aldrig) i tropiken. Normalt vet vi att arterna existerar, om ens det.
  • Omfattande insamling av insekter, där vi använder stora mängder fällor i ett helt år, tycks fungera. Ett stort material som täcker olika årstider och skogstyper, varje tropisk biologs dröm. Nackdelen är att det tog oss fyra år bara att sortera materialet för första artikeln..

Närmare detaljer i själva artikeln. Ta gärna också en titt på den svenska översättningen, pressmeddelandet, och datan. Artikelns data innehåller t.o.m fältanteckningarna och foton av alla fällor, jag bestämde mig samla all information om fältarbetet på ett ställe.

Wasp calculator / Pistiäislaskin / Stekelräknare

How many wasps would a Malaise trap catch if it rained 50 mm a day? Can I catch anything outside the forest in farmland? Try adjusting the calculator and find out! These are based on table 4 of our paper. The default values are for an actual sample we collected in primary forest.

Kuinka paljon pyydykseen tulisi pistiäisiä jos sataisi 50 mm päivässä? Tuleeko metsän ulkopuolisilta banaani- ja teeviljelyksiltä mitään? Kokeile pistiäislaskinta ja ota selvää! Laskin perustuu artikkelimme taulukkoon 4. Vakioarvot ovat näytteestä, jonka keräsimme pyydyksestä CCT1 (kuva ylhäällä).

Hur många steklar fångar en Malaisefälla om det regnar 50 mm per dag? Fångar man alls något utanför skogen i odlingsmark? Testa ut stekelräknaren och ta reda på svaren! Räknaren använder tabell 4 i vår artikel. De förvalda värdena är verkliga, baserade på ett prov vi fick från fälla CCT1 (bild ovan).

E. ghesquierei E. overlaeti E. quagga E. uelensis

Trapping time Date (from 1 Sep) Rain Dead wood Forest type
days mm / day cm2/m

15.10.2018 New article: placing your traps randomly works, but catches very little.

No, it's not the first of my Uganda 2014-2015 results yet. This is the work that led to that sampling, and to my PhD.

The article is here. If you can't get the full text, there is also a preprint available (similar but not identical to the published version). You can also get the data and analyses.

Before I started my PhD, we actually already had a full year's data from the Ugandan rainforest. But it was only 1212 wasps.. Either something had gone seriously wrong, or Africa has much fewer wasps than Amazonia. So the question was, is it worth going back and trying again?

I looked through the material, and decided the answer was "yes". There were entire subfamilies with only one individual caught. Though the sample size was tiny, I could tell something about the subfamilies' ecology: Ichneumoninae seemed to prefer forest to logged areas, for example. There was clearly still stuff to discover.

So in 2014 I went to Uganda, slightly nervous lest I spend a year with little to show for it. And came back with over 100 000 wasps. More than twice as many as we've got from Amazonia in total!

We still don't know for certain why attempt 1 produced so little, and attempt 2 such an overwhelming amount we're still processing it. But probably it was how we placed the traps. The first time, the traps were placed randomly and were regularly moved around (better for statistics). I, on the other hand, spent hours trying to figure out where the wasps fly (better for the sample size).

Now we've finally got round to publishing the results from attempt 1. Two take home messages:

  1. The article summary. If you place traps randomly, the results are good but may be meagre. Oh, and there seems to be a lot to discover in African rainforests.
  2. Tropical field work is [insert expletive] tricky!
Anyone want to do attempt 3, good sample size and statistical rigour?

6.7.2018 Wasp observations while caring for Baby

Now taking care of our < 2 week old daughter. Research is on the backburner for a while. But that gives time to notice what the wasps are up to in our back yard.

Pimplinae attacking, of all things, a wind chime. So focused that I even got a Youtube video of it. Is this the next wasp trap?

7.2.2018 The one true original Scientific Article

Writing an article (e.g. on Ugandan wasp ecology*)? And want to remind yourself what the conventional structure is? Here's the basic ur-article for you! Basically, scientific articles are female – or at least, they have an hourglass figure. Start really general then narrow down to specifics and back to general.

* "Ugandan wasp ecology" is of course a totally random example..

What about the abstract? Even easier, it's just a baby version of the main text.

Now all I need to do is change hummingbirds to wasps and pad a bit. Science is easy:)

20.12.2017 Insects online

The museum holotype collections are finally online! Now you can see what type specimens we have in:

Not all the specimens are visible yet, and there's more data to come, but we've already got quite a bit of information online:)

Sounds like an easy job doesn't it? It isn't. To see why it took a whole museum ages to display 1000 insects online, lets take a look at specimen

  1. In about 1875, John Sahlberg travels to Lapland and collects an insect. He notices its a new species and names it Platypsallus acanthioides.
  2. The insect ends up in our museum. It survives two World Wars, an independence struggle and quite a few less dramatic events. Now we decide to digitise it.
  3. We take 20 odd photos of the insect at varying focuses, then combine them to get a sharp image. Repeat for the insect's head, antenna, labels etc.
  4. We try to interpret the labels. This seems to be "Platypsallus acanthioides".. erm, never heard of it. Sahlberg's old diaries and Google help a bit, and we figure out it's nowadays called Chlamydatus acanthioides.
  5. Where's it from? "Lapponia Rossica" is luckily clear even with our limited knowledge of Latin. (during the digitisation we've needed Latin, German, French, Russian, Swedish, Finnish, Afrikaans, English..) This comes from the Ponoy river east of Murmansk.
  6. This is actually an easy specimen to interpret. Try reading the handwriting on this one!
  7. Is it really a type specimen? I.e. has this been used to describe a new species? We figure out it's a "syntype" - when Sahlberg described the species this was one of the insects he looked at, but there were also others.
  8. Finally, I collect all the information and photos we've gathered and put it online. Gives a bit of variation to the PhD work:) (I'm currently withut funding)

That's the process for one insect. Repeat over 1000 times, with creatures from all parts of the world, and with labels written in 19th century in shaky handwriting.

The reason why we do this? Because now anyone, anywhere in the world, can quickly check if we have a specimen and what it looks like. In the past, types just got "lost", no one knew what the species originally looked like because the type was presumed destroyed (we've discovered several types like this lurking in our museum). Or they were posted somewhere so a new species could be compared to them.. and never came back.

I'll finish with a bit of historical name dropping: try going through the types and looking for Kinsey, Mannerheim and the entire Sahlberg family (four generations). There's also lots of pre-WW1 insects from a German entomologist modestly named August Rudolf Eduard von Bodemeyer.

22.10.2017 Marvellous time series! Oh, and could we please have a proper calendar?

Here's a sample of what I've been working on recently. Ugandan rainfall on top, wasp numbers below. Now I can see day by day how many wasps were caught and what the weather was like at the time. The Rhyssinae in the above picture were apparently caught during the dry seasons; perhaps they are more common then, or perhaps the traps don't work as well when it rains? Investigations continue..

That's the pleasant news. The irritating news (well, olds) is our atrociously sloppy calendar. 28 days in February and 31 in January makes working with time series data like this frustrating - at least to a beginner like me. Not to mention the hassle of comparing temperatures (measured 9 AM) to wasp samples collected in the afternoon. I gave up on showing the first of each month on the x axis, it would have too long to explain this concept to the computer.

To think that I found medieval timekeeping silly, with its hours that vary in length from day to day.. I demand a proper 28 days per month, 13 months per year calendar! And if we can have ten hours = 100 minutes per day and move the earth's orbit while we're at it all the better :)

13.7.2017 Porapistiäisten rikkautta!
445 African Rhyssinae!

Ugandan sademetsien pistiäisiä tuli valtavasti, mutta nyt vihdoinkin saatiin ensimmäinen satsi etiketöityä! Kyseessä alaheimo Rhyssinae (suomeksi varmaankin porapistiäiset) joita tunnetaan Afrikasta vain 12 lajia. Lajeja tulee lisää heti kun saan Ugandan satsin läpikäytyä:

There's over a hundred of these black and yellow Rhyssinae. Not sure how many species yet.
Epirhyssa overlaeti: yksi naaras löytyi Kongosta 1930, toinen Kamerunista 1980. Ugandasta löytyi paljon enemmän.
Epirhyssa overlaeti: one female was found in Congo 1930 and another in Cameroon 1980. That's all that's known about the whole species. Until now..
We've also caught males.
Täysin uusi, kauniiin hunajanvärisenä loistava laji.
Harvinaisin löytö. Uusi laji, ja tämä naaras on ainoa yksilö koko (yli 100 000:n pistiäisen) aineistossa!
I might name this species Epirhyssa quagga.
Yhteensä 445 Ugandalaista porapistiäistä, ällistyttävä määrä!
An amazing 445 Ugandan Rhyssinae in total!

Tuesday 27.6.2017 How to label rainforest wasps

I'm labelling thousands of Ugandan wasps at the moment. Play the video to see how it happens (courtesy of someone who just got their first taste of video editing:)

Friday 19.5.2017 New article / Uusi julkaisu / Ny artikel

If you're a caterpillar, don't move to Phuket – you'll be eaten up in a moment. Go to a mountain in Greenland instead. That's the main result of our new article investigating global predation patterns. We spread vast amounts of plasticine caterpillars (yes, the stuff you get in toy shops) around the world to get this result – not directly part of my PhD but ever so much fun:)

Jos haluat säilyä hengissä perhosentoukkana, älä muuta Phuketiin. Grönlannin ylängöillä saalistajat eivät napsi sinua heti suuhun. Siinä uuden julkaisumme päätulos. Levitimme muovailuvahaisia toukkia metsiin ja tuntureihin kautta maailman (juu, hienot 'tieteelliset tutkimusvälineet' saisi lelukaupasta) – ei suoraan väikkäriainesta mutta tavattoman hauskaa leikkiä muovailuvahalla pistiäiskeruun lomassa.

Viktigt säkerhetsinformation till alla fjärilslarver: flytta inte till Phuket - ni blir uppätna i en nafs. Grönlands höjder är säkrare. Så kan vår nya artikel om global predation sammanfattas. Vi använde 'superavancerade metoder' även kallad 'modellera', av vilken vi lagade konstgjorda fjärilslarver. Lite sidospår för min doktorand men oerhört roligt; och vem vet, kanske nån dag kan jag göra nåt lika globalt med steklar.

That's what a caterpillar looks like when the birds have pecked it. The daily likelihood of getting eaten was much higher at the equator (left), because of increased arthropod attack (right).

Exactly the same applies for elevation. Go up a mountainside 40 metres = go one degree toward the poles = 2.7% less risk of being eaten.

Tiistai 21.3.2017 Neulausohjeet

Miten neulaan Ugandan loispistiäisiä? Ohjeet löytyvät täältä (PDF). Lue ja pistäydy eläinmuseon parvella kokeilemassa! Saa myös tulla ihailemaan sademetsän uusia lajeja vaikket neulata haluaisikaan :)

Neulaus: Neulaa pistiäinen selkäkilvestä, avaa siivet ja erottele tuntosarvet.

Liimaus: paina neula pistiäisen kylkeen, avaa siivet ja erottele tuntosarvet.

Kuvat kertovat tiivistetyn tarinan, varsinaiset ohjeet löytyvät täältä (PDF).

Tuesday 21.3.2017 All samples sorted!

We finished sorting at the start of this month - great rejoicing! The next step is to pin our massive sample of 100 000 - 200 000 Ugandan wasps.

876 samples from which we picked the ichneumonids and braconids (centre) and also spiders (right).
Now I'll start pinning these beautiful parasitoid wasps.

Perjantai 20.1.2017 Museon pieni gekko kasvanut

Söpöläisemme on viettänyt Suomessa 3kk:)

Museon arkipäivää on tutkia eläimiä, ja kerätä + laittaa niitä esille. Mutta tänne myös tuodaan kaikkea maan ja taivaan väliltä tunnistettavaksi. Tämä pienokainen (os. levyvarvasgekko Hemidactylus turcicus) oli jotenkin onnistunut kiilamaan itsensä USAsta tulleeseen lentorahtiin. Hän siirtyi museon kasvatiksi ja on toipunut hyvin, häntäkin kasvaa hyvää vauhtia takaisin.

Uusin asumus sijaitsee kotonamme, entinen akvaario jota sisustamme yltiökokoiseksi gekkokodiksi. Etualan kivikko on kelvannut.

Friday 20.1.2017 How to sort tropical Malaise samples

Descriptions in English, suomeksi och på svenska.

Here's how to get parasitoid wasps out of a large mass of insects. The sieves speed things up by removing insects that are too small or large to be wasps.
Tässä yksi tapa erottaa loispistiäiset hyönteismassasta. Seulat nopeuttavat erottamalla liian pienet tai suuret hyönteiset.
Så här kan man separera parasitsteklar från en stor massa andra insekter. Sållen hjälper genom att ta bort insekter som är för små eller stora.

First pick a sample.
Valitse sopivan oloinen näyte.
Välj en burk som inte ser mödosam ut.
Tip the insects onto the sieves (sieves courtesy of the geographers).
Kaada ötökät seuloille (joita on alunperin käytetty maaperänäytteisiin).
Häll ut insekterna på sållen.
Rinse with copious ethanol.
Huuhtele runsaalla 80% etanolilla.
Skölj med litertals etanol.
The 11.3mm sieve catches larger butterflies etc.
Aluksi 11,3mm seula jossa isompia perhosia yms.
De största insekterna fastnar i 11,3mm sållet.
It only takes a minute to remove wasps from the first dish.
Pistiäisiä ei ole montaa ja ne erottuvat perhosista hetkessä.
De få steklarna i första skålet är lätta att sortera fram.
The insects in the main sieve (1.41mm) have to be sorted one spoonful at a time.
1,41mm seulaan jääneet kannattaa lajitella lusikallinen kerrallaan.
De flesta insekter stannar i 1,41mm sållet därifrån de sorteras lite åt gången.
With practice the parasitoid wasps can be removed without a scope.
Pistiäiset saa poimittua paljaalla silmällä.
Efter en tid behövs ingen mikroskop för att sortera fram steklarna.
Ethanol separates the insects so they're easy to sort.
Hyönteisten uittaminen etanolissa auttaa erottamaan pistiäiset.
Steklarna är lätta att sortera fram när dom simmar i etanol.
The last sieve (0.037 mm) usually has no wasps, they were all caught by the 1,41mm sieve.
Viimeiseen seulaan ei juuri pääse pistiäisiä, 1,41mm seula pysäyttää ne kaikki.
Sista sållet har sällan steklar eftersom 1,41mm sållet redan tagit dom.
This mess of small flies and butterfly scales used to slow me down a lot, now the sieves separate it.
Tästä perhosuomujen ja sääskien mönjästä oli hirveästi haittaa lajittelulle ennen seuloja.
Fjärilars vingfjällar och små flugor stör inte längre sorteringen, nu när sållen är i bruk.
Once the sorting is done, tip the wasps into a separate jar.
Kun kaikki on lajiteltu, pistiäiset menevät omaan purkkiinsa.
När allt är sorterat, häll ut steklarna i en separat burk.
Finally, the sieves need to be washed in ethanol..
Seulat pitää vielä huuhdella etanolilla..
Sållen behöver ännu sköljas med etanol..
..and the remaining insects sieved out.
..ja seuloista irronneet hyönteiset ottaa talteen.
..och de kvarvarande insekterna tas till vara.
These insects often have some wasps among them.
Joitain pistiäisiä saattaa vielä löytyä.
Härifrån kan ännu tas några steklar.
The remnant is sieved to remove excess ethanol..
Loppuhyönteisistä seulotaan etanoli..
Resten av insekterna sållas (för att ta bort etanolen)..
.. and put back in the original jar.
.. ja ne kaadetaan takaisin purkkiinsa.
.. och hälls tillbaka i burken.
That's it! Wasps in one jar, the rest of the insects in another. We also remove spiders.
Se oli siinä! Pistiäiset ja loppunäyte eri purkeissa, ja hämähäkit voi ottaa bonuksena talteen.
Det var det! Steklarna och resten av insekterna i skilda burkar. Spindlar kan man också ta tillvara.

This method, and the fact that half the museum + several students have been helping me sort, has speeded up thing considerably. Almost 89% of the samples are now sorted, and next month it'll finally be finished!

Thursday 13.10.2016 (15.10) Sorting still continuing

One of the problems with too successful fieldwork.. I've now got 39% of the material sorted, over half of the wasps are still waiting to be removed from the samples!

I'm starting to realise that the 2nd largest tropical Malaise sample ever collected* may take some time to process. Now I'm trying to figure out how to speed things up - anyone got an automatic sample sorting robot?

* probably at least. It's 389 trap months, more than twice the size of our Amazonian samplings (185 tm) but losing the gold to the Costa Rican Malaise Trap Network (>500 tm).

Friday 5.2.2016 (16.1) Webcam from the sorting

NB: This webcam no longer updates. I'm now (13.10.2016) sorting without a microscope.

The sorting is underway! Here's a chance to see some Ugandan insects under the microscope: the picture should update every minute or so.

What are you seeing?

I'm sorting one sample at a time under the scope. My laptop shows real time video of the insects, and sends a snapshot to the web once a minute.
This is what it looks like much of the time. The dish has lots of insects: I pick out parasitoid wasps (plus occasional spiders) using tweezers. There are two in this picture, see if you can spot them:)
Occasionally I'll focus on something interesting. This is an Epirhyssa sp. which I spent several minutes trying to identify. (If you're wondering about the black lines in the background, they help me see which parts of the dish I've checked)

Once I've finished a dish I'll pour the remaining insects into a jar then get a few spoonfuls of new ones. The screen will be blank during this time (yes, I use spoons and other kitchen implements, science at its most high tech..) If the picture does not update I'm not sorting, try again later.

Perjantai 18.12.2015 (24.12) Uusia elukoita museolla

Museolle ilmestyi uusia asukkaita. Muutto uuteen kotiin sujui jouhevasti:

Kasuaari, marabu, emu ja lumileopardi saapuivat aulaan. Marabuhaikara tulee peräti Akseli Gallen-Kallelan kokoelmista.
Krokotiili keräsi katseita rappukäytävässä. (nimeksi 3,5 metriselle vauveliinille ehdotettiin 'Napsua' ja 'Mister Kuivasta')
Mister Kuivanen nousee seinää koristamaan. Painoa enää joitain kymmeniä kiloja (Zimbawessa eläessään painoi vielä satoja kiloja).
Täältä voi valvoa museon tapahtumia:)
Lumileopardi ilmestyy yläkertaan seuraavaksi. Oikein Korkeasaaren kasvatteja.
Kasuaari ja emu odottelevat ylös pääsyään. Vartiovat naulakkoa samalla kun..
.. karhu matkaa yläkerran vitriiniin.
Lopputulos hieno! Museota komistaa nyt muurahaiskarhu päädyssä..
..ja krokotiili, marabu ym uudet otukset levittäytyivät vitriineihin ja niitten päälle.

Ei kestänyt viikkoakaan, kaikki putsaus, krokotiilin ehostus yms mukaan laskettuna. Valkohäntäkauriinkin nenä meikattiin mustalla tussilla.

Tuesday 8.12.2015 (14.12) Technological sorting

Finally! I never got the hang of using a microscope, at least not without the countless pains and toils of outrageously unergonomic posture. But a 20 euro webcam solves everything. Now I can sort the Ugandan samples with ease:

Webcam + cardboard toilet roll. Attach to the microscope lens with a bit of tape. Easy! (The webcam is a 'Trust Spotlight Pro' but probably any cam works)
Now the picture shows on my laptop screen. No need to bend the neck when sorting samples.
The picture is surprisingly good. On a mac it's enough to open Quicktime Player and start a movie recording - here's an Ugandan Acaenitinae under the scope.

Is this super-revolutionary? Well, no.. stuff like this exists in most museums (including ours). But I always thought it was super complicated to set it up, and that you need expensive special cameras. Turns out you only need to pop in to the supermarket for a webcam; the specialist equipment is for more finicky stuff like multilayer photos.

Lauantai 17.10.2015 (18.10) Sademetsän ja tropiikin harjoituskurssi

Perjantai 18.9.2015 (17.9) Taas Suomessa

Täällä on kylmää eikä avokadoja saa kohtuuhintaan.. mutta kotona on kiva olla, ja hyönteisnäytteet ja matkamuistot saapuivat turvallisesti. Turkish airlines jätti jopa veloittamatta liikakiloista. Nyt pitäisi vain saada 100 000+ loispistiäistä lajiteltua hyönteismössöstä.

Flygplanet kom från Kigali (Rwanda) 3.55 på morgonet. Vid dagsljus var vi redan över Sudan.
Saharalla riittää kokoa ja osa siitä sopii sterotyyppiseen hiekkalaatikkomalliin.
The Nile broke up an otherwise uniformly khaki terrain.
Pyramiditkin on nyt nähty. Ehkei ihan niin läheltä kuin monet turistit mutta silti.. Ehkä Giza?
Ett farväl till Afrika när vi flyger ut över Medelhavet.
The continent changed as we crossed into Turkey.
Istanbulin välilaskun jälkeen matka jatkui Romanian, Ukrainan ja Puolan yli.
Riga kändes redan som hem.
Lopultakin Suomessa! Missä satoi koleaa..

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