A scientifically literate society is one that can make educated, informed decisions based on the best available evidence. While much of the public harbors a basic interest in science and education, there is still a need to increase and improve efforts to educate and engage with the public about science. In one such effort to strengthen the public’s connection to science, researchers with the Museum für Naturkunde (Natural History Museum) in Berlin encouraged museum visitors to participate in the naming of a new species of wasp found in Thailand. This call was met with keen interest, and the researchers shared their experience with us in a recently published PLOS ONE paper.
This previously undescribed red and black wasp belongs to a group of ant-mimicking cockroach hunters with extraordinary predation techniques. When one of these wasps finds a cockroach that looks tasty, the wasp stings it, stopping the cockroach’s normal escape response without paralyzing its legs, and leaving it in a surprisingly cooperative, docile state. The wasp then leads the complacent cockroach by one antenna back to a location of its choosing, often where it has lain eggs. The cockroach willingly marches to its doom, saving the wasp a lot of heavy lifting. At their final destination, the cockroach becomes a hearty meal that the wasp enjoys from the comfort of home.
With all of this information about the wasp in hand, as well as access to information about taxonomy rules and principles, visitors were given ballots with four potential wasp names from which to choose (no write-ins, as species names need to follow certain conventions):
- Ampulex bicolor, for its red and black coloring.
- Ampulex mon, a reference to the ethnic Mon people of Thailand that live in the region where the wasp was discovered.
- Ampulex dementor, inspired by the Dementors in Harry Potter that consume their victim’s souls, leaving them will-less.
- Ampulex plagiator, a reference to plagiarism, which reflects the wasp’s ant-mimicry (and was a shout-out to current events at the time).
Over 90% of the 300 ballots given out were returned, and the winning name was Ampulex dementor. Apart from formally describing a new species, the authors of the paper note that the naming activity was well-received and seemed to be an appropriate way to educate the public about taxonomic work and the process of classification of species. At least initially, crowd-sourcing may seem more appealing and democratic to the public than some of the other ways to go about naming species:
- Naming species after the research funders, although that is good politics.
- Auctioning naming rights to the highest bidder. The authors note that internet casino Goldenpalace.com named a monkey the GoldenPalace.com Monkey.
- Naming new species after members of a royal family.
- Referencing your favorite movies, which leads to beetles named after Arnold Schwarzenegger (Agra schwarzeneggeri) and Darth Vader (Agathidium vaderi), although in fairness the namer claims to have exhausted all other useful descriptive names.
- Contacting myself, Alex Theg, for ideas, which is guaranteed to result in bad puns.
Citation: Ohl M, Lohrmann V, Breitkreuz L, Kirschey L, Krause S (2014) The Soul-Sucking Wasp by Popular Acclaim – Museum Visitor Participation in Biodiversity Discovery and Taxonomy. PLoS ONE 9(4): e95068. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0095068
Images: Images are from Figures 1 and 2 of the published paper