Humans are trying to fly to Mars, they are jumping 39km to the Earth, and yet they cannot identify some of the largest animal specimens on the planet. This, I would say, is a little sad. Taxonomy is becoming somewhat of a forgotten science.
Dr Peter Jäger
A German scientist has discovered a new harvestman in Laos with a leg span of more than 33cm. However, he and his colleagues have struggled to identify the creature to a species level, and the giant arachnid, which was discovered earlier this year, remains nameless.
Dr Peter Jäger, an arachnologist from the Senckenberg Research Institute
in Frankfurt, discovered the harvestman whilst filming a television production in Laos. In between takes, Dr Jäger collected spiders from nearby caves in the province of Khammouan.
The uniqueness of this particular specimen was only recognised when the time came for the collection to be categorised. Dr Jäger, who specialises in huntsman spiders, was unable to identify the arachnid, yet even after consulting harvestman specialist Ana Lucia Tourinho from the National Institute for Research of the Amazon (INPA)
, the creature’s identity remained elusive.
In an interview with ScienceOmega.com
, Dr Jäger explained why this long-legged arachnid is proving so difficult for experts to identify. I began by asking Dr Jäger when he first realised that this creature was unusual.
"I noticed that this harvestman was large whilst I was still in the cave, but I didn’t realise how large it was until I brought it back to the laboratory," he replied. "Obviously, when you’re in a cave, it’s dark, you are in a hurry, and the creatures’ legs are never fully extended. Only when you get your specimens back to the lab can you gain a true idea of what you have collected. We know that there is another harvestman from a totally different family in Brazil, which has a leg span of more than 34cm, so our arachnid is not a record breaker. It is, nevertheless, one of the largest harvestmen in the world and yet it cannot be named due to a lack of specialists."
Whilst this dearth of taxonomic expertise certainly doesn’t help matters, even specialists can have difficulty identifying different species of harvestmen.
"The harvestman group is a nightmare for taxonomists," explained Dr Jäger. "Whilst spiders have copulatory organs, harvestmen have real penises. Unfortunately for us, there is very little variation amongst these penises. Their somatic features also tend to be very similar. Essentially, it is very difficult to distinguish between species of harvestmen and it is hard to identify characteristics that make distinguishing these creatures easier. It can be quite frustrating when you have described 10 new species but you know that there are 100 more in your cupboard."
I asked Dr Jäger whether he thinks that more funding should be made available for descriptive taxonomy. Whilst he recognises the need to invest in a variety of areas, Dr Jäger warns that we are in danger of forgetting about this well-established branch of science.
"Presently, there is a lot of money being channelled into fields such as genomics, molecular phylogeny and the like," he said. "This is not a complaint; it is merely an observation. However, I would point out that these fields require much more money than taxonomy. If you were to invest half of the genomics money into our field, we could conduct 500 per cent more research than we do currently. Our needs are minimal. We have a pen and a microscope. We measure, we draw and we publish. Taxonomists don’t require much. We can be really productive with very little investment. Even so, we are being left behind. Humans are trying to fly to Mars, they are jumping 39km to the Earth, and yet they cannot identify some of the largest animal specimens on the planet. This, I would say, is a little sad. Taxonomy is becoming somewhat of a forgotten science."
Despite his negative assessment of the current taxonomic landscape, Dr Jäger is optimistic about his discipline's future.
"Our current economic circumstances are to a large extent mirrored by scientific funding," he explained. "Governmental investment has shifted towards fields such as climate change and genomics, and taxonomists are unlikely to receive any of this money. The Senckenberg Research Institute is one of the only German institutions still conducting descriptive taxonomy. Our universities gave up a while ago as they can no longer afford to do it. Moreover, they are not training future generations of taxonomists. However, by diligently continuing our research, we might yet convince the policymakers and the public not to forget taxonomy. Bottom-up approaches such as this are always the most difficult to follow; it is much easier when you have top-down funding from government. However, they can still achieve success."
My final question to Dr Jäger concerned his anonymous arachnid. I concluded our conversation by asking whether or not he thought that this giant harvestman would ever be named.
"In conjunction with Chinese and Japanese researchers, Dr Tourinho and I hope to obtain funding for a new project that will turn the spotlight onto our Laotian harvestman. We have put forward our proposal and are currently awaiting the decision. If this decision goes our way, I am sure that this arachnid will, at long last, lose its anonymity."