Subtleties of science

In April 2014 on April 8, 2014 at 8:10 pm


Kirsti: In 1999 I lived in Narrabri, NSW, and worked for the CSIRO in the cotton industry. A keen rock climber, I spent many a weekend in Mount Kaputar National Park, Warrumbungle National Park and other great climbing places around the region.

In addition to the climbing in Kaputar however, I was fascinated by the red slugs there. My friends and I would often go bush walking and slug spotting, and I always felt that all was right with the world if we spotted a bright red Triboniophorus aff. graeffei.

So last year when a series of news articles, reports and blogs about a “new species of bizarre blood-red slug” discovered in a remote area of Australia came out, I was intrigued. A NEW species? ANOTHER red slug?!  Where? How big? Near the Kaputar red slug?

Headlines included:

It turned out that it WAS the Kaputar red slug they were talking about. The one I knew and loved. The research that was picked up by the media apparently found that the Kaputar red slug and cannibal snails were distinct species and endemic to Kaputar National Park, not colour variations of already described species.

What constitutes a distinct species has traditionally been a group of organisms described using morphological differences and that are capable of producing viable offspring. However, defining a species is fraught with difficulties. Currently, and most often, information used to split species is found in an organism’s DNA; if nobody has looked at an animal’s DNA, descriptions of species will stand until that research is done.

So the Kaputar red slug was a newly confirmed distinct species in that it was given a new name, but not a newly discovered organism, which is the angle most pieces were taking. But the slug itself had been known to scientists, locals and tourists for decades. It was not, as one Australian Geographic blog wrote,

“only discovered in the last few years……..because they are in such a remote location”.

The intricacies of recognising distinct species is a fundamental aspect of any biological science, and it frustrated me that those who had written the articles had not been specific enough to explain the full story behind the science, including the importance of taxonomy.

It’s fabulous that someone wrote about these slugs in the first place, but communication leading to misunderstandings about science is not good for anyone.

[image thanks to Vinni on flickr]


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