More than you might think

In doing an earlier post about local arthropods, it struck me how long it can sometimes take, and this is mostly because of the research (and only partially in trying to write flowing and coherent sentences – perhaps I should be devoting more time to that.) Let’s be blunt: blogs are an exercise in thinly-disguised narcissism, or at least those like mine are. Okay, mine is, perhaps alone. A lot of it is simply relating what I’m doing, finding, photographing, or wasting time thinking about, but somewhere in there, at an unknown point on the importance and impact scale, lies the idea that I should be imparting some kind of useful information. That’s what makes it readable, right? Or would, anyway.

Chief among the habits that I’ve adopted is including the scientific name whenever I can. To some extent, this is because common names are wildly variable and subject to regional differences (I can’t tell you how many different names there are for wood lice,) while scientific names are a constant, even through other countries. But more importantly, having the name attached means that someone is more likely to find my images when searching for them under the proper terms. The serious users – as in, the ones most likely to pay for rights – will be more often searching under the scientific names, especially since a lot of different species might fall under the broad umbrella of “daddy longlegs” or whatever. So, I work to include those names almost every time.

But it can be challenging. Like, if I have no real idea where to begin looking, I can only start a search based on rough appearance, and things like, “small white flower clusters” can turn up a shitload of hits, most of which bearing no resemblance to what I’m trying to find. BugGuide.net is an awesome resource, and is responsible for 99.9% of the arthropod names that I provide. If you can’t find something, all you have to do is post a photo of it and someone will be along to tell you what it is, if it’s at all possible from the photo – many times it isn’t, because species differentiation can depend on subtle differences that are hard to make out, or something seen only on the underside, and so on. But of course, receiving an answer from their crew of volunteer entomologists requires that you send in the pic and wait for a reply, and most times when I’m posting I haven’t had that much foresight.

While some types of insects are easy to describe with a few words in the search bar, producing everything on the site which seems to match the keywords, others are not so simple. For the unidentified insect in the post that spurred this idea, I tried “thin assassin” because, seriously, how else could I describe it? It looked like an assassin to me. And I was wrong – it’s not. Near as I can tell, it was one of many species of “rice bug,” which gets interesting because – well, let’s allow BugGuide’s own words to illustrate:

Photo-based identification barely possible. The key below has been designed by D.R. Swanson based on info provided in Ahmad (1965).

1 Posterior angles of pygophore acutely pointed; claspers crossed over pygophore; posterior margin of female seventh abdoinal sternum always with a short median split (subg. Oryzocoris)…2

  • Posterior angles of pygophore not acutely pointed; claspers crossed in a socket; posterior margin of female seventh abdominal sternum always medially biolobed, never with a split; [venter pale ochraceous]…S. (Stenocoris) tipuloides
  • 2 Median longitudinal red line on ventral abdominal segments present, sometimes faint; pygophore with posterior processes rounded and pointing posteriorly; basal portions of eighth paratergites largely visible…S. (O.) furcifera

  • Median longitudinal red line absent; pygophore with posterior processes pointed and facing each other; basal portions of eighth paratergites largely concealed by first pair of gonocoxae…S. (O.) filiformis
  • If you went a bit crosseyed trying to interpret that guide to identification, trust me, I did too. I did even if you didn’t – I think I’d need at least a semester of entomology just to become familiar with the fucking body parts. You know it’s bad when you have to do research in order to determine if you’ve successfully done your research.

    One of the flowers from that same post – in fact, the same photo – was also fun. I’d found a guide to identifying wildflowers, and it even sorted by state, and then by color. Which can help a lot, because my catch-all term is, “purple,” despite the very large number of variations within that definition, especially with flower colors. Except they didn’t even have a “purple” category and had it listed instead under “red.” And then, the image for the match was more white than anything else, especially when seen as a thumbnail. I think it was 20 minutes alone just to find Maryland Meadow Beauty (Rhexia mariana.) I mean, god damn, you better buy a print or web-usage contract if you came here while searching for either of those terms…

    It certainly does not help that I’ve fallen into concentrating on arthropods. I have no background whatsoever in entomology, and there are literally thousands of species on the North American continent alone, with lots of tiny variations. Which is why you often see hedging; I’ll list something as “likely” a particular species simply because I cannot know for sure. It’s easy to know if you have a raccoon, and even if there were three subspecies it shouldn’t be too hard to figure out. But caterpillars, for instance? They’re almost all green, so what do I search on? And even when I think I have a positive ID, I might have no idea how many different species look almost exactly like that, making my confidence entirely misplaced.

    Which brings up one small flaw with BugGuide.net, something that could have helped enormously. They appear to have no keywords attached to species pages, and no ability to even search by region; their search engine seems to mostly find text from comments or replies. On occasion, I will switch to Google itself and search the webbernets at large, because a descriptive phrase can garner more hits there. Guided by a potential match, I can then refine the details through other sources, which is often necessary because many of the hits I find are far from accurate.

    And then, there are the variations. Just about every guide that provides illustrative images will only provide one. Even with something as relatively simple as frog species within this state, there can be a lot of variation in color patterns and size just for adults, to say nothing of how much difference there can be with juveniles. There are several frogs in the yard on which I cannot pin down a positive ID, because they don’t look like any image, or match any description, that I’ve found. No, it’s unlikely that I’ve discovered a new species; the guides just don’t include enough (any) details about juveniles.

    Not all of this is for posting, by the way – I also have to provide this information within my own database, because that’s the best way of finding images for clients. My first photo sale, of water striders, came with a request for exact species, and I was embarrassed that I couldn’t provide it. I know a bit better now; without very close examination (read: high magnification or dissection of a dead example,) it can be impossible to tell. But it’s often because I’m posting recent images that I’m doing the legwork then.

    An unfortunate side effect is how some of this research ends up being duplicated – I look up species that I’ve already looked up before. It’s a symptom of the overall issue in the first place; what happens when I forget that the skinny non-assassin is a rice bug? Sure, I can have it in the database, but it’s not directly linked to a thumbnail, just an image filename, which is a number. So I go looking for those pics to get the file number, then into the database to get the names again – if I remember that I already have images of that species, which doesn’t always happen (getting old, you know the drill.) Just to give you an idea, I have over 20,000 arthropod images in my digital stock alone, so sifting through them isn’t a casual undertaking, and they’re sorted by filename and not by, for instance, “skinny suspected assassins” – the database is what I use for refined sorting, and that can only use the information that’s there (again, no “skinny bugs” categories or anything of the sort.) The blog, meanwhile, has tags of all the scientific names that I’ve used, but to find them I have to know what they are to start typing the damn name – they’re not cross-linked in any way. And let me tell you: even in the rare circumstances that I remember what the scientific name is, I often cannot spell it correctly from memory, because Latin doesn’t follow the same rules as English (or any, perhaps.) So on occasion I search for the species to find out where the species name can be found in my own system…

    So there you have it. When it seems that I’m taking a long time between posts, sometimes it’s because I’m not simply throwing up an image with, “This… is a bug!”

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