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June 30, 2008
Contact: Brendan M. Lynch, University Relations, (785) 864-8855.

Sea anemone researcher at KU sits on ‘supreme court’ of species identification

LAWRENCE — Every day, hordes of spanking new species are found and furnished with scientific names. Almost 17,000 species of animals and plants new to science were described last year. With this abundance of natural novelty, somebody must sort out the new critters, ensuring that discoveries stick to the established system of classifications.

This is the sometimes-contentious work of Daphne Fautin, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Kansas. Since 2006, Fautin has been a commissioner for the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature, the world’s top body overseeing the naming of species. She said that policing the scientific names of living things occasionally could be a thorny task.

“Ideally, there’s one name for one species of animal,” said Fautin. “But inevitably it turns out there are problems with this.”

For example, Fautin said two researchers in different parts of the world sometimes name the same species differently, unaware of the other’s discovery. In such a case, which name does the committee recognize?

“You should use the older name,” Fautin said. “If it weren’t for that, then somebody could come along and name all the animals in the world again — and get credit for them all. So, we have to give credit to the first person who was there. But sometimes it turns out that the oldest name is actually a name that is used for a different animal. And we want to have a unique name for each animal.”

Sheer numbers complicate this effort: Since Carolus Linnaeus devised the modern system for plant and animal names 250 years ago, about 1.8 million species have been described. Most new finds go unheralded except within scientific circles.

“The real attention grabbers are those kinds of things that humans can identify with in some way,” said Fautin. “Because they’re pretty, because they’re cute, because they’re dramatic — they’re the largest, they’re the smallest, they’re the oldest. But most of us try to just plod on and try to catalogue the world’s biodiversity in obscurity.”

To spotlight the importance of its work, last month the commission issued its first “top 10” list of new plant and animal species. Included in the roll were Electrolux addisoni, a sleeper ray whose prowess at sucking while feeding earned it comparison to a vacuum cleaner; Tecticornia bibenda, a plant found in western Australia that resembles the “Michelin Man”; and a 75-million-year-old dinosaur discovered in Utah that was dubbed Gryposaurus monumentensis.

“Any of the 17,000 species that were discovered last year were eligible for the list, and we had to boil that down to ten,” said Fautin. “They were 10 species that were noteworthy and emblematic. The idea is to make the point that they’re all over — they’re fossils, they’re insects, they’re mammals, they’re marine organisms. There’s a lot that we don’t know about the world.”

As luck would have it, a KU biology graduate student, Jake Esselstyn, found one of the commission’s top 10 new species. Esselstyn recently discovered a “flying fox” bat during a research trip to the Philippines’ Mindoro Island.

“It’s a cute animal,” said Fautin. “And it’s a mammal — and new species of mammals are not that common. Although now that were investigating some of the more remote areas, we’re discerning them.”

Such discoveries of new species are routine to Fautin. Before her membership on the commission, she worked with the group as a scientist who regularly identified new species of sea anemones.

“I understood the kind of decisions the commission has to make,” said Fautin. “I’ve described a lot of species and genera of sea anemones and their relatives and a couple of jellyfish — and I’ve made appeals to the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature. I’ve engaged in the practice of nomenclature, and I’ve found cases where the rules would make it awkward or impractical.”

According to Fautin, finding and describing new species isn’t terribly difficult, so long as you’re looking in the right places. Indeed, Fautin’s field of expertise remains ripe for discovery making. Today, the KU researcher continues to bring new sea anemones to light, even as she helps craft the rules that govern designations of all new species.

“I’ve got dozens of new species sitting on my shelf, waiting to be described,” said Fautin. “I’ve had no problem getting species, because I sit here as one of the five anemone taxonomists in the world. People are always sending me photographs and saying, ‘What’s this?’ Most anemones are very difficult to identify from photos, so I’ll ask for specimens. Very often, when I get them, I don’t know what they are — I can’t identify them. So, it turns out they are new species.”

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