Invasive species denialism: what is it, and what can we do about it?

Even when there is agreement on the impacts of invasive species on ecosystems, some stakeholders nevertheless deny the need for, or benefit of managing invasive species.

Guest blog post by Noelle G. Stratton, Nicholas E. Mandrak, and Nicole Klenk

Invasive species denialism (ISD) is a hot topic in recent invasion ecology discourse. Many of us are familiar with the concept of science denialism, particularly during recent discussions about climate change and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Essentially, a person who exhibits science denialism is skeptical of, or refuses to believe, the scientific facts about a topic. Much of the discussion about ISD has focused on characterising it as a form of science denialism. However, while science denialism may be one form of ISD, it is not the only one.

Understanding the different forms of ISD is an important step in learning more about what drives ISD positions, and how those positions can be overcome to improve invasive species management. Recently, researchers at the University of Toronto outlined these ISD forms in a new paper in NeoBiota. While these framings are not the only ways to characterize invasive species denialism, they demonstrate that there are multiple framings to the ways that people deny the imperative to manage all invasive species as prescribed by early detection and rapid response.

So, what are the forms of ISD?

Venn diagram of the three forms of invasive species based on interviews and focus groups with invasive species community members in the Great Lakes region, including interested publics and decision-makers: 1) Invasive species denialism; 2) invasive species cynicism; and 3) invasive species nihilism. Each has different motivations and ways of talking about invasive species. Notably, all forms include an opposition to invasive species engagement or management efforts.

Invasive species denialism is the form that will typically come to mind when you picture a “science denialist”. Someone who does not believe in invasive species, or says that the existing scientific literature is all wrong, would fall within this framing. However, it is more complex than that. Invasive species practitioners also identified some of those who believed in invasive species and supported their management under this framing.

For example, folks who wanted management to happen immediately, be 100% effective, or have no risks to them or the environment whatsoever, were considered another form of denialist. This is because while these people supported invasive species management, they were still opposed to certain management efforts due to a lack of understanding of the science behind that management. Similarly, people who agree invasive species are a problem but say “this isn’t my problem, and I shouldn’t have to do anything about it” when shown evidence otherwise were also framed as denialists, as it again indicated a denial, or at least a lack of understanding of the scientific facts.

Invasive species cynicism is the form where someone may well understand what invasive species are and the science behind their management. However, they may still oppose management because they believe it will harm them in some way.

For example, someone who does not want to have to check and clean their boat to prevent an invasive species spread because it takes too much time would be categorized as an invasive species cynic. As well, someone who does not want to cooperate with management efforts because they personally like a particular invasive species and would like it to persist, despite knowing its potential for harms to the ecosystem or economy, is also an invasive species cynic. From these examples, it should be clear that this form of ISD is quite different from what we would think of as a “science denialist”. They understand the science, but it just does not motivate their beliefs or behaviour on this topic.

This research was also recently presented at the International Conference on Aquatic Invasive Species by co-author Noelle G. Stratton. Invasive species nihilism, in particular, prompted discussion both in-person and on social media.

Invasive species nihilism is the form that does not appear to take into account the science behind invasive species or their management at all. Rather, it revolves around the idea that invasive species research, management, or engagement are essentially a waste of time. The efforts were pointless and the results useless. This framing also differed from the other two forms in that the folks who expressed these beliefs often directly approached invasive species practitioners during the course of their work to inform them that their job was meaningless and to ask them why they bothered. This type of framing has the greatest potential to impact invasive species researchers and practitioners personally, and it is potentially the most difficult form of denialism to surmount during engagement and management efforts.

How can invasive species denialism impact management efforts?

ISD has the potential to hinder management efforts in a few different ways. Invasive species denialists may slow down decision-making by stalling or halting discussions with other stakeholders. In some cases, invasive species cynics have taken direct action to interfere with the implementation of policies that would aid with management efforts. Invasive species nihilism could make some stakeholders less likely to engage with managers because they have come to believe that management is pointless, and managers themselves may endure the stress of hearing that their work is not of value to people with this perspective. The effects that ISD may have on management are varied and depend largely on the type of framing of ISD being used. Similarly, the way that we respond to someone that we believe to be an invasive species denialist should be informed by the framing of ISD they are using.



“An understanding of these framings is also vital to respond to instances of ISD appropriately. Whether we are being confronted with anti-science contrarianism, environmental cynicism, or outbursts of nihilism, should inform our responses and our strategies to counter these positions.” (Stratton et al. 2022)

The framings of ISD explored in this research suggest that a diversity of interpretations of species movements, and value judgments about their impacts and the need for management, exist. This has the potential to problematize reductionist claims that all critiques of invasive species management are simply a denial of scientific facts. These results provide evidence that even when there is agreement on the impacts of invasive species on ecosystems, some stakeholders nevertheless deny the need for, or benefit of managing invasive species. This study further contributes to ongoing scholarly and practitioner conversations about the normative assumptions of invasive species biology and their implications for invasive species management and governance.

Research article:

Stratton NG, Mandrak NE, Klenk N (2022) From anti-science to environmental nihilism: the Fata Morgana of invasive species denialism. NeoBiota 75: 39-56. https://doi.org/10.3897/neobiota.75.90631

Image credits: diagram by NG Stratton; comic panels by NG Stratton, via material from Flickr (ChrisA1995, CC BY 2.0; Mike, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0; the-difference CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) and Studio Alternativi (Esetefania Quevedo).

Celebrating excellence in plant systematics research: Phytokeys’ 200th issue

For almost 12 years now, PhytoKeys has been providing high-quality, peer-reviewed resources on plant taxonomy, phylogeny, biogeography and evolution, freely available open access.

PhytoKeys, Pensoft’s open-access, peer-reviewed botany systematics journal, has been around for over a decade. Since its launch in 2010, it has published almost 30,000 pages in more than 1,200 works. As PhytoKeys hits the milestone of its 200th issue – which presented a monograph of wild and cultivated chili peppers – there’s plenty to look back to.

For almost 12 years now, PhytoKeys has been providing high-quality, peer-reviewed resources on plant taxonomy, phylogeny, biogeography and evolution, freely available open access.

As our flagship botany journal, PhytoKeys is part of our concerted effort to help advance taxonomic studies. The more we know about biodiversity, the better we are equipped to protect it.

This is why, in a time when so many species are getting wiped out from the face of the Earth before we even become aware of their existence, it is truly exciting that we can sometimes be the bearer of good news.

Take the story of Gasteranthus extinctus from Ecuador doesn’t its name sound a lot like extinct to you? That’s because the scientists named it based on specimens collected some 15 years earlier. So, they suspected that during the time in between, the species had already become extinct.

Yet, this is a happy-ending story: in a surprising turn of events, the plant was rediscovered 40 years after its last sighting. Gasteranthus extinctus is the hopeful message that we all needed: there’s still so much we can do to protect biodiversity.

Long believed to have gone extinct, Gasteranthus extinctus was found growing next to a waterfall at Bosque y Cascada Las Rocas, a private reserve in coastal Ecuador containing a large population of the endangered plant. Photo by Riley Fortier.

Over the time, we saw some ground-breaking botany research. We welcomed some record-breaking new plant species, such as the 3.6-meter-tall begonia, and the smallest Rafflesia that measures around 10 cm in diameter.

We witnessed the discoveries of some truly beautiful flowers.

Some of them may have looked like they had a demon’s head hiding in them.

We helped unveil some taxonomic mysteries – like the bamboo fossil that wasn’t a bamboo, or the 30-meter new species of tree that was “hiding in plain sight”.

Then there was the overnight celebrity: the first pitcher plant to form underground insect traps.

Published less than two months ago, Nepenthes pudica broke all kinds of popularity records at PhytoKeys: it became the journal’s all-time most popular work, with thousands of shares on social media, more than 70 news outlets covering its story, and upward of 70,000 views on YouTube.

Publishing in PhytoKeys is always a pleasure. I appreciate the quick but rigorous peer review process and reasonably short time from initial submission to the final publication.

says Martin Dančák of Palacký University in Olomouc, Czech Republic, lead author of the Nepenthes study.

Every week, PhytoKeys publishes dozens of pages of quality botany research. Every week, we’re amazed at the discoveries made by botanists around the world. In a field that is so rapidly evolving, and with so much remaining to be unveiled, the future sure seems promising!

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Redefining genera across the legume subfamily Caesalpinioideae in latest PhytoKeys issue

The Special Issue features 16 papers by 54 authors from 13 countries and forms Part 14(1) of the Advances in Legume Systematics Series.

Blog post by Colin Hughes, University of Zurich

The three most important taxonomic ranks used to classify organisms are family, genus and species, especially the latter two, which make up the scientific binomials used to communicate about biodiversity, and indeed about all aspects of biology. While the description of a new plant family is now a very rare event, the same is not true for genera. Indeed, delimitation of genera within many plant families remains in a state of considerable flux, because many traditionally recognized genera do not correspond to evolutionary groups. This causes unwelcome instability in scientific names of species and is why work to delimit genera lies at the heart of much current research in systematic botany.

This is very much the case for subfamily Caesalpinioideae, the second largest subfamily of the legume family, which is the focus of this new special issue of the open-access, peer-reviewed journal PhytoKeys. With around 4,600 species of mostly trees, shrubs and lianas, distributed right across the tropics in rainforests, dry forests and savannas, Caesalpinioideae represent a spectacularly diverse lineage of tropical woody plants.

New analyses of DNA sequences of 420 species of Caesalpinioideae presented here reveal that 22 of the 152 currently recognized genera do not coincide with natural evolutionary groups, i.e., in phylogenetic terms, they are non-monophyletic. The aim of this special issue is to re-define as many of these problematic genera as possible in order to bring them into line with natural evolutionary lineages. To achieve this, nine new genera of Caesalpinioideae are described, five previously recognized genera are resurrected, and three genera shown to be nested within other genera are consigned to synonymy.

Many of the species in these new genera are important, conspicuous, ecologically abundant, and, in some cases, geographically widespread trees in tropical forests. For example, the three species of the new genus Osodendron  are important large canopy trees in tropical rain forests and riverine gallery forests across a broad swathe of west and central Africa. In recent decades these species have been successively placed in different genera including Cathormion, Samanea and Albizia, among others. The neglected generic placement of these African trees has finally been resolved via analyses of DNA sequences, and a new generic home for them has been established.

In contrast, two of the genera newly described in this special issue, Mezcala  and Boliviadendron, each with just a single species, are much more elusive plants occupying very narrowly restricted geographical ranges. Mezcala occurs across just a few square km of the central Balsas Depression in south-central Mexico and Boliviadendron is known from just two interior valleys of the Bolivian Andes. Establishing these two lineages as distinct genera highlights the importance of conserving these globally rare evolutionary lineages.

Choosing names for new taxa is one of the delights and privileges of the practising taxonomist. Derivations of the names of the nine new genera described in this special issue span features of the plants themselves and the locations where they grow, as well as names of fellow legume researchers honoured with genera named in recognition of their contributions. For example, Osodendron is named after ‘Oso’ a food that is prepared in West Africa from seeds of one of the species now placed in the new genus. Mezcala is named for the indigenous Mezcala culture of the Balsas region in Mexico where the genus is found. Boliviadendron is named as such because it is a tree that grows in Bolivia and nowhere else. The new genus name Heliodendron is derived from the Greek helios (sun) and dendron (tree) because it grows in the sunshine state of Queensland in Australia and its flowers are arranged in sun-like globose heads.

Leaves and fruits of the new genus Naiadendron from Amazonian rainforest. Photo by Glocimar Pereira-Silva

Finally, Naiadendron celebrates the Brazilian Amazon where the genus grows, and the famous German botanist Carl Friedrich Philipp von Martius (1794–1868), who named the Brazilian Amazon after the Naiads, Greek mythology’s nymphs of freshwater.

Four of the genera newly described in this Special Issue are named after prominent contemporary legume taxonomists, three women and one man: Gretheria for Rosaura Grether, a Mexican specialist on the genus Mimosa, Ricoa  for Lourdes Rico, another Mexican botanist who worked on legumes based at Kew, Marlimorimia, in honour of Marli Pires Morim of the Jardim Botânico do Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in recognition of her contributions to the taxonomy of mimosoid legumes, and Gwilymia named for Gwilym Lewis, in honour of one of the world’s most experienced and productive legume taxonomists who is legume research leader in the Herbarium at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

One of the central achievements of the work on Caesalpinioideae presented in this Special Issue is that for the first time a truly pantropical analysis of this large group of plants has been accomplished. A global synthesis is essential to work out how many genera there are.

For example, by sampling across Asia, Africa, Madagascar, North and South America, it has become clear that the Old World species of the important pantropical genus Albizia are not closely related to Albizia in the Americas, prompting splitting of the genus and resurrection of the name Pseudalbizzia for the New World species. All elements of the former Albizia – the last so-called ‘dustbin’ genus in the mimosoid legumes – are accounted for in this special issue (here, here and here). Similarly, the genus Prosopis, one of the most important silvopastoral tree genera of the dryland tropics, has traditionally encompassed elements spanning the New and Old Worlds that are here shown to comprise four distinct evolutionary lineages, two in the Old World and two in the Americas, here treated as four separate genera.

Changes to the scientific names of species are not always immediately welcomed by users, but over time, establishment of a classification that is based on robust evidence about evolutionary history will result in greater nomenclatural stability and in named taxa that are aligned with natural groups and hence biologically more informative. This special issue, reshaping the generic system of a species-rich group of legumes, is an important step towards that goal.

Photo credits: Globimar Pereira-Silva, Steen Christensen, William Hawthorne, Colin Hughes, Luciano de Queiroz, Marcelo Simon.

Bay Area high school students describe two new species of scorpions with California Academy of Sciences

Identified on the community science platform iNaturalist, the species add to California’s rich biodiversity.

California now has two new scorpions on its list of species, thanks to the efforts of two keen-eyed high school students from the Bay Area and the California Academy of Sciences. Harper Forbes and Prakrit Jain, avid users on the community science platform iNaturalist, discovered the new-to-science scorpions while trawling the thousands of observations uploaded by other users in the state.

New species Paruroctonus soda and Paruroctonus conclusus are playa scorpions, meaning they can only be found around dry lake beds, or playas, from the deserts of Central and Southern California. For scientists, conservation managers, and the growing communities of wildlife observers on platforms like iNaturalist, these newly described species provide a better understanding of California’s biodiversity and the places most in need of protection—a cornerstone of the Academy’s Thriving California initiative.

The budding naturalists collaborated with Curator of Arachnology  Lauren Esposito, PhD, to formally describe the species in a study published today in ZooKeys

This female scorpion is one of the newly described species (Paruroctonus soda) and is seen carrying 51 juveniles. (© Prakrit Jain)

In 2019, Forbes and Jain came across an unknown scorpion species on iNaturalist observed near Koehn Lake—an ephemeral lake in the Mojave Desert—that had remained unidentified since it was uploaded six years earlier. 

“We weren’t entirely sure what we were looking at,” Jain says. “Over the next couple years, we studied scorpions in the genus Paruroctonus and learned they frequently evolve to live in alkali playas like Koehn Lake. When we returned to that initial observation, we realized we were looking at an undescribed Paruroctonus species.” 

Harper Forbes (left), Prakrit Jain (right), and Academy Curator of Arachnology Lauren Esposito, PhD, (center) search for scorpions. (Gayle Laird 2022 © California Academy of Sciences)

Serendipitously, another unknown scorpion observed in San Luis Obispo County was uploaded to iNaturalist shortly after their discovery in May of 2021. With a few years of arachnid research under their belts, Forbes and Jain knew right away that it was a new species in the same genus. They immediately contacted Esposito to assist, resulting in two new-to-science scorpions—P. soda and P. conclusus—and a published paper in which Forbes and Jain are first authors. 

“Harper and Prakrit went through all the steps to formally describe a species, sampling the populations and comparing them with existing specimens in our collection,” Esposito says. “There’s a lot of work involved, but they are incredibly passionate about this research. It’s inspiring to see that their hobby is one that advances biodiversity science.”

The new scorpions species were discovered on community science platform iNaturalist. (Gayle Laird 2022 © California Academy of Sciences)

P. soda and P. conclusus are both alkali sink specialists, meaning they have adapted to the alkaline basins—dry, salty playas with high pH soils—in which they evolved. Each species has a very limited range and can only be found in the playas where they were discovered: Soda Lake (the former’s namesake) and Koehn Lake. During their summer break, Forbes and Jain visited the lakes to collect specimens of each new species. After scouting the alkali flats during the daytime for habitats most suited for playa scorpions, they set out with their vials and forceps at dusk, as these desert dwellers are primarily active at night. Luckily, most scorpions fluoresce under ultraviolet light, so the researchers used blacklights to scour the open playas while keeping an eye out for their glowing subjects. They also searched the scorpions’ typical hiding places, peering into cracks in the hard clay soil and combing through common alkali sink plants like iodine bush (Allenrolfea occidentalis) and bush seepweed (Suaeda nigra). At the end of each trip, they successfully collected a sample size of both males and females sufficient for the study.

While the species range for P. soda is small (just a few square miles), it is entirely located within Carrizo Plain National Monument—federally protected land that renders this species safe from human-driven threats. Unfortunately, this is not the case for P. conclusus.

“While no official assessment has been carried out for either species, P. conclusus can only be found on a narrow strip of unprotected land, less than two kilometers long and only a few meters wide in some places,” Forbes says. “The entire species could be wiped out with the construction of a single solar farm, mine, or housing development.” 

Habitat of Paruroctonus conclusus at the type locality, taken in July 2021.

Though P. soda seems to be relatively safe compared to P. conclusus, the constant threat of climate change endangers all wildlife, particularly in delicate desert environments. As part of the Thriving California initiative, Academy scientists hope to collaborate with schools and communities throughout the state to conduct further biodiversity research. By harnessing scientific data—including crowd-sourced data from iNaturalist—and providing access to environmental and science learning, the initiative hopes to halt biodiversity loss in the Golden State. 

Harper and Prakrit will continue their research with the Academy and are currently working on a holistic book of California’s scorpions. (Gayle Laird 2022 © California Academy of Sciences)

Now high school graduates, this fall Forbes will study evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona and Jain will study integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley. They will continue their work with Esposito and are currently collaborating on their next major project: a holistic book of California’s scorpions. In addition to their research and academic endeavors, they are excited to get back out in the field to find, collect, and identify more scorpions. 

“I will never get tired of going out at night to find a certain scorpion for the first time,” Jain says. “Whether it be solving the mystery of a long-lost scorpion or discovering something new in an unexpected place, a trip to the desert is always a challenge and an adventure.”

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Research article:

Jain P, Forbes H, Esposito LA (2022) Two new alkali-sink specialist species of Paruroctonus Werner 1934 (Scorpiones, Vaejovidae) from central California. ZooKeys 1117: 139-188. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.1117.76872

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This press release was originally published by the California Academy of Sciences.

Celebrating World Lizard day with amazing discoveries

This August 14, we’re looking back to the most impressive lizard discoveries we’ve witnessed throughout the years.

World Lizard Day is a great way to raise awareness of these curious reptiles and their conservation needs; it is also a good excuse to look at pretty lizard pictures! Today, we’re doing a bit of both.

At Pensoft, we’ve published many new lizard species, some of them rare and truly fascinating. This August 14, we’re looking back to the most impressive lizard discoveries we’ve witnessed throughout the years.

The Dracula lizard

This beautiful lizard, described in 2018, comes from the Andean slopes of southwestern Colombia and northwestern Ecuador. It inhabits evergreen low montane forests, and is only known from a relatively small territory of approximately 1582 km2. Its prey most often consists of insects, spiders and worms.

Contrary to what you might think, this species was not named after the eponymous vampire count, but rather after some beautiful tropical flowers.

The specific epithet dracula refers to the Dracula Reserve, which is located within the lizard’s distribution and near its type locality. The Reserve protects an area with a high diversity of orchids of the genus Dracula.

Published in ZooKeys.

The tiny chameleon

This lizard friend, known as Brookesia tedi, is less than 3 cm long! It is more than ten times smaller than the longest known chameleon, Furcifer oustaleti. Its size makes it difficult to find, and as a result, challenging to study. Its description, published in 2019, helped resolve a 50-year old identity question.

Living at 1300 m above sea level on the Marojejy massif in northeastern Madagascar, Brookesia tedi lives is brown in colour, its tail and the back of its head grey.

The researchers consider it Vulnerable but worry that improper protection on Marojejy, as well as fires, could rapidly drive the species to becoming Critically Endangered.

Published in Zoosystematics and Evolution.

The charismatic wood lizard

Enyalioides feiruzae is a colourful and highly variable lizard – especially its males, who can have brownish turquoise, gray, or greenish brown backs traced with pale lines. Females, in turn, can be greenish brown or floury brown, with faint dark brown lines on their back, limbs and tail, and spots on the sides. The team behind its discovery spent seven years in the area searching for amphibians and reptiles before describing it.

The species comes from the Tropical Andes, and more specifically – from the Huallaga River basin, an area which is still poorly studied because for a long time it was disturbed by civil wars.

The Feiruz wood lizard was named after another reptile, Feiruz the iguana – “muse and lifelong friend”.

The spotted monitor lizard

Mussau is a small island in northeastern Papua New Guinea. The top predator on it? A lizard.

Varanus semotus has been isolated from related species for an estimated one to two million years, with its closest relatives several hundred kilometers away.

Even so, science discovered it only recently.

The one-meter-long lizard has a black body with yellow and orange markings and a pale yellow tongue, with a turquoise to blue tail. These animals “will eat just about anything they can catch and kill,” study author Valter Weijola told the Washington Post.

As the only large terrestrial generalist predator and scavenger on the island, Varanus semotus may fill an important ecological function, making it of particular conservation concern.

Published in ZooKeys.

The black iguana

What makes Iguana melanoderma so distinct is its black color; in fact, it only gets blacker with age. The species was discovered in Saba and Montserrat islands, the Lesser Antilles (Eastern Caribbean), to which it is endemic.

However, it is threatened by unsustainable harvesting (including pet trade), and competition and hybridization from invasive alien iguanas from South and Central America.

A greater focus on biosecurity, the minimization of hunting, and habitat conservation, would help its conservation, the researchers write in their paper.

In Saba, Iguana melanoderma lives on cliffs, in trees and bushes, in shrublands, and deciduous woodlands. It lives in a foggy and cool environment up to about 500 m a.s.l. and sunbathes as soon as the sun rises.

Published in ZooKeys.

Bonus: Illegal lizard trade might be closer than you think

Dubbed “miniature Godzilla” and “the Holy Grail of Herpetology,” the earless monitor lizard is endemic to Borneo. Legally, it can neither be traded within Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei, nor exported out of them.

Even so, reptile enthusiasts and unscrupulous traders have long been smuggling small numbers of earless monitor lizards, eventually bringing them to Europe.

A new study reported that accredited zoos have acquired individuals of the protected lizard, without any evidence of legal export.

“Zoos that continue to obtain animals that have been illegally acquired, directly or indirectly, are often fuelling the illegal wildlife trade, supporting organised crime networks and possibly contributing to the decline in some species,” Vincent Nijman, author of the study, told us.

Published in Nature Conservation.

“Oscar describes Oscar”: Interview with Oscar Lasso-Alcalá, Pt 3

“This is why Mikolji’s Oscar is a highly appreciated species in the aquarium hobby. It is more than just a fish in an aquarium when it is considered a true pet.”

In this last part, we talked with ichthyologist Oscar Miguel Lasso-Alcalá about what makes Astronotus mikoljii – a new to science cichlid species that he recently described in ZooKeys – so special.

Find Part 1 and Part 2 of the interview.

What makes this species so charismatic and loved by aquarists and ichthyologists?

I already spoke about my experience as an aquarist from an early age, where the qualities of the species of the Astronotus genus, known as Oscars are highlighted.

Different varieties and color patterns have been obtained from them through selective breeding, or genetic manipulation, which are called living modified organisms (LMOs) or genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

However, the true lovers of nature, the aquarians of the “Biotope Aquarium” movement  and the like, prefer pure specimens to manipulated or artificially modified ones. This is why Mikolji’s Oscar is a highly appreciated species in the aquarium hobby. It is more than just a fish in an aquarium since it is considered a true pet.

For ichthyologists, it is remarkably interesting and at the same time very challenging to study a genus like Astronotus, which already has only three described species (Astronotus ocellatus, A. cassiprinnis and A. mikoljii).

This is an unusual situation, which, as we have reported, requires an integrative approach and the work and experience of different specialists for its study. With all certainty, as in the case of Mikolji’s Oscar, other species of the genus Astronotus remain to be studied and described, and we hope that we will have the fortune to participate with our experience in these new works.

Local people have long known this species. What role does it have in their lives?

It is important to clarify that Astronotus mikoljii is a new species for science, but it is not a “new species” for people who already knew it locally under the name of Pavona, Vieja, or Cupaneca in Venezuela or Pavo Real, Carabazú, Mojarra and Mojarra Negra in Colombia. Nor for the aquarium trade, where it was known by the common name of Oscar and scientific name of Astronotus ocellatus, or, to a lesser degree, as Astronotus cassiprinnis.

This species has been of great food importance for thousands of years for at least nine indigenous ethnic groups.

Much less is it a new species for the nine thousand-year-old indigenous ethnic groups that share their world with the habitat of this fish, who baptized it with some 14 different names, known in their languages as mijsho (Kariña), boisikuajaba (Warao), hácho (Pumé = Yaruro), phadeewa, jadaewa (Ye’Kuana = Makiritare), perewa, parawa (Eñepá = Panare), yawirra (Kúrrim = Kurripako), kohukohurimï, kohokohorimï, owënawë kohoromï” (Yanomami = Yanomamï), eba (Puinave), Itapukunda (Kurripako), uan (Tucano).

Hence, the importance of scientific names, since the same species can have multiple common names, in the same language or in multiple languages.

It is important to note that very few studies that describe new species for science include the common names of the species, as given by the indigenous ethnic groups or natives of the regions, where the species live.

This species has been of great food importance for thousands of years for at least nine indigenous ethnic groups, and for more than 500 years to the hundreds of human communities of locals who inhabit the Orinoco River basin in Venezuela and Colombia. In our studies, in the plains of Orinoco from 30 years ago, we were able to verify its consumption, as well as high gastronomic value, due to its pleasant taste and enhanced texture.

However, due to my imprint as an aquarist, I have not wanted to consume it on the different occasions that it was offered to me, because it is very difficult to eat the beloved pets that we had in our childhood.

Why is this fish important to people and to ecosystems?

It is especially important to highlight that the Astronotus mikoljii species plays a very important role in the ecosystem, due to its biological and ecological background.

Although it can feed from different sources, it is a fundamentally carnivorous species, and therefore, it “controls” other species in the ecosystem.

Without Mikolji’s Oscar, the aquatic ecosystem would lose one of its fundamental links and the delicate balance of its functioning, because the species it feeds on could increase their populations uncontrollably, becoming veritable pests. This would put in great danger the entire future of the aquatic ecosystem of the Orinoco River basin and the permanence of other species of ecological importance.

In addition, it would surely affect other species used by man, both those of commercial importance (sold as food or as ornamental species), and for the subsistence fishing of native and indigenous inhabitants.

Mikolji’s Oscar, although a carnivorous species, also has its natural predators, for example piranhas and other predatory fish. For this reason, it evolved with an ocellus, or false eye, at the base of the caudal fin, to confuse its predators and guarantee its survival. Obviously, this species will be compromised if we don’t learn about it, use its populations wisely and preserve it in the long term.

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Photos by Ivan Mikolji.

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You can find Part 1 and Part 2 of the interview with Oscar.

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“Oscar describes Oscar”: Interview with Oscar Lasso-Alcalá, Pt 2

“Working in science in a country under these conditions, and getting to publish the results of the investigations in high-level scientific journals such as ZooKeys, is an act of “true heroism”.

Oscar Miguel Lasso-Alcalá, MSc. is a Spanish-Venezuelan ichthyologist. This summer, his team described a new species of Oscar fish in the journal ZooKeys.

In this second part of his interview, he tells us about the challenges in his work and shares the story behind the new cichlid’s name. You can find Part 1 of the interview.

What did you find to be the biggest challenge?

Throughout the past seven years, the description of this species has been a real challenge. Our group of researchers knew from the beginning that it was going to be a difficult job.  However, we never imagined the magnitude of the problems or challenges we would encounter.

We had to study the specimens from the Orinoco River basin in Venezuela and Colombia, and rivers from the hydrographic basin of the Gulf of Paria in Venezuela, which were within our reach, in the main scientific collections of fishes in Venezuela. Similarly, we studied the specimens from the Amazon River basin in one of the main collections in Brazil. We studied the traditional external morphology (morphometric characters, or the body, and meristic measurements, or the number of structures or parts such as scales, fins, etc.) and their coloration, as well as their internal morphology, that is, the study of structures of their skeleton, with the use of high-definition radiographs, where we found the main differences with other species.

A novel technique was the study of the shape of the otoliths, or “ear stones”, a technique not used before in the study of this group of fish. That is why I mentioned before that we also made some great scientific discoveries.

In addition to the long and meticulous laboratory work, we also had to conduct field work, not only to capture new specimens for the morphological study, but also for the genetic and molecular study, a new methodology that has become popular in recent years as a way to support taxonomy and systematics in the description and classification of species.

For this latest work, we also relied on a recent study in this area of ​​research, carried out by the genetics specialists on our work team. This means our research was based on what is currently called “integrative taxonomy”, which is the sum of different techniques, methods, and technologies, at the service of achieving our goal: the description of a new species for science and for the world.

Many other difficulties came up along the way, which is why this research took over seven years to be published. Normally, researchers cannot focus 100% of their time on one single research, and workloads fluctuate. Sometimes we think that a greater number of specialists would help distribute the workload evenly or that getting input from others with different fields of experience, sometimes specialized, would help enrich the work, but that also makes it more difficult to reach agreement. Reaching perfection is never possible, and it took a long time for us to reach a level of results that was both acceptable to all and well accepted in the field of taxonomy and systematics.

One of the biggest challenges was purely financial. While we had some funds from Brazilian research support organizations and two universities, this was not the case in Venezuela, a country plunged in a serious political, social, economic, and humanitarian crisis.

Working in science in a country under these conditions, and being able to publish your results in high-level scientific journals, including ZooKeys, is an act of “true heroism”, as my brother José Antonio often says when cheering on my publication.

How come you named it after Ivan Mikolji?

People who do not know about the great work carried out by river explorer Ivan Mikolji might wonder about that, but the thousands of people, connoisseurs and followers of his work are absolutely clear on the justification for this appointment.

Find more about Ivan Mikolji and his work on his website: https://mikolji.com/.

In addition to being an excellent professional explorer, author, underwater photographer, audiovisual producer and even plastic artist, he is a tireless and enthusiastic disseminator of the biodiversity and natural history of freshwater fish in Venezuela and Colombia.

His work has contributed greatly to the knowledge and conservation of the aquatic ecosystems of both countries. His motto is: “You cannot preserve something that you don’t know exists.”

He has made dozens of photography and art exhibitions in Venezuela, Mexico and the United States, as well as award-winning documentaries on the Orinoco River and its biodiversity that have acquired millions of views.

Mikolji has also inspired thousands of “conservationist” aquarists, as a judge in a worldwide movement called “Biotope Aquariums,” where people try to simulate, as much as possible, the ecosystems and aquatic biodiversity of their places of origin, for the conservation of their local biodiversity.

In addition, his educational work further includes the “Wild Aquarium”, a new movement and methodology, where he recreates in the same place (in situ), a “Biotope aquarium”, helping local communities (children and adults) learn about local aquatic ecosystems and biodiversity and their conservation.

In addition to his great artistic, informative, and educational work, with the enormous data accumulated in more than 15 years of work and field observations, in the recent years, he has participated in different research projects, publishing books and numerous scientific articles, some of them with us. For this reason, in 2020, he was appointed Associate Researcher of the Museo de Historia Natural La Salle (Caracas) of the Fundación La Salle de Ciencias Naturales, in Venezuela. By the way, we are planning research that we hope to announce soon in various publications.

Regarding Astronotus mikoljii, our good friend and now colleague Ivan Mikolji, was the one who initially proposed that we describe this species that he loves so much. He selflessly supported all the authors throughout the study in diverse ways, even in the field work in Venezuela. Ivan helped us in the search for equipment and materials, in the search for information, in the photographic work, and now in the dissemination of this study. For this reason, the article, in just one week, achieved more than 4,500 downloads, both on ZooKeys and ResearchGate web platforms, a true record for a study of this type.

Most importantly, throughout these years, Ivan has always encouraged us not to lose our course and objective, even in the most difficult moments. After years of knowing him, we have cultivated an excellent friendship. This is why we decided that it was just and necessary to recognize his work, help, companionship, and friendship, naming this beautiful and beloved species in his honor.

Photos by Ivan Mikolji.

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You can find Part 1 and continue reading with Part 3.

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“Oscar describes Oscar”: Interview with Oscar Lasso-Alcalá, Pt 1

“As an ichthyologist, I feel pride in collaborating and contributing to science, nationally, regionally, and globally.”

Oscar Miguel Lasso-Alcalá, MSc., is a Spanish-Venezuelan ichthyologist with undergraduate studies in Oceanography, Fishing Technology and Aquaculture, and Postgraduate studies in Agricultural Zoology and Estuary Ecology. He has worked in diverse areas such as taxonomy, biology, ecology, freshwater, estuarine, and marine fisheries and management. For 33 years, he has participated in more than 70 research projects and published over 250 studies. He has made more than 250 scientific expeditions to different regions of Venezuela and six other countries in America. He has dedicated much of his work to studying, educating, and managing introduced species and their invasions.

This summer, Oscar’s team described a new species of cichlid fish from northern South America in our journal ZooKeys. We spoke to him to find out how they came to the discovery and what it means to him.

When did you discover the new species?

Although some taxonomists have specimens that they believe, or have preliminarily diagnosed, to correspond to different, undescribed or new-to-science species (in my case I know of around 15 species I’ve diagnosed as new), Astronotus mikoljii was different. We did not discover that it was a new species overnight.

Normally, the process of discovering a new species takes a long time and a lot of work. It is not an easy task. First, you need to analyze the external and internal morphology. You study the color pattern and other characteristics and compare them to those of known, described species that are akin or similar to the one being studied, looking for the main differences. It is also very important to carry out exhaustive documentary and bibliographical research, to learn about all related species that have been previously described. Then, if there is complete certainty that it’s a different species that has not been previously described and published, there’s an entire process of formal description of the new species.

Did you immediately recognize it as a new species?

Absolutely not. Mikolji’s Oscar is difficult to differentiate externally. The first researcher who evidenced the main differences of Astronotus ocellatus (a binomial as it was previously known) from the Orinoco River basin, was the Swedish ichthyologist Sven Oscar Kullander, curator at the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm. He is one of the greatest specialists in the world on species of the Cichlidae family, to which the species we were studying belongs. This was first published in 1981, followed by his 1983, 1986, and 1989 studies (including his Ph.D. thesis) and later in other studies of his published in 2003 (all cited in our recent article published in the ZooKeys journal).

Likewise, my brother, the Spanish and Venezuelan ichthyologist Carlos Andrés Lasso, currently a researcher at the Instituto de Recursos Biológicos Alexander von Humboldt of Colombia, with more than 40 years of experience, also recognized this species from the Orinoco River as different from the one present in the Amazon River basin. In 18 different studies carried out in Venezuela and Colombia (all cited in our article), he records this species as Astronotus cf ocellatus (“cf” means the species name is yet to be confirmed), or directly as Astronotus sp., already assuring that it was a different species and new to science.

We are letting the world know a defined and individual species exists.

With this background, we responsibly acknowledge that it was Sven and Carlos who discovered Mikolji’s Oscar, and not us. Our credit and recognition are given for the process of describing the new species and for its publication. It is very important to clarify here that the discovery of a new-to-science species and its description (and publication) are two different facts, situations, and processes. However, in our study, we discovered some very important morphological characteristics, as well as genetic information, that allowed the differentiation of this species from those already known.

What was most exciting about this finding?

 As an ichthyologist, I feel pride in collaborating and contributing to science, nationally, regionally, and globally. I feel satisfaction every time I share my research results at a scientific event or meeting (congress, symposium), or publish them in a scientific book (or part of it) or in a popular journal. This is not just an ordinary job for me, since I really like to investigate, and almost always have a lot of fun with this activity. As I have said in many of the interviews that I have had throughout my over 30-year career: to me, it’s not a job, it’s a way of living.

It fills me with great satisfaction to have the opportunity, more than 40 years after first meeting these Oscars, to be able to study them, describe them, and give them the name and place they deserve in science, and in the world.

The description of a species which is new to science is something really special, not only for me and my colleagues in this study, but for the vast majority of taxonomists. This is not only due to the fact that our last names will always appear next to the scientific name, but also to the fact that we are letting the world know a defined and individual species exists. By adding another species, we increase the known biodiversity of a country, a region, and the world, and therefore, we demonstrate that biodiversity must be studied, managed, conserved, and used rationally and independently.

Astronotus mikoljii is a very charismatic species, highly appreciated, valued, and loved in the aquarium hobby.

I remember that as a kid (between 7 and 13 years old), in the aquariums built at home by two of my older brothers, José Antonio and Carlos, to whom I largely owe being an ichthyologist today, we had some specimens of Oscars from Orinoco. We bought them in a local aquarium store in Caracas and took care of them, loved them like little children. I remember that in addition to feeling happily identified with the name (Oscar), they felt like real pets. They “got excited” when they saw us, took food directly from our hands without biting our fingers, and even let themselves be caressed, as if they were docile puppies or kittens. They were my favorite fish.

Years later, as an adult, beginning my research years, in the late 80’s and early 90’s, even with aquariums in our house (I had more than 20 in my good time as an aquarist), we had new specimens of these Oscars. This time, they were specimens captured by my brother and me, in the floodplains of the Orinoco River (Llanos de Apure), where for more than five years we studied the biology and ecology of some 200 local fish species, many of them unique in the world just like Mikolji’s Oscar. From that field study came the doctoral thesis of my brother Carlos, and the undergraduate theses of half a dozen other researchers, including mine.

It fills me with great satisfaction to have the opportunity, more than 40 years after first meeting these Oscars, to be able to study them, describe them, and give them the name and place they deserve in science, and in the world. It also fills me with deep satisfaction, having the opportunity to describe a “large-sized” species that was apparently already known, both locally and nationally (for its importance in fishing), as well as internationally in the world of aquarism. That is why, as I shared our study and finding on social media, I wrote: “Oscar describes the Oscar: Mikolji’s Oscar.

We are also extremely grateful to the many people who helped us and collaborated with us in this study, by collecting new specimens in the field, reviewing fish collections under their care, taking X-rays, searching for specialized bibliographies, studying the native or indigenous names, and even editing and publishing the article in Zookeys journal.

Likewise, it was exciting to share this research experience with colleagues from Brazil (co-authors of this study, just like me), who trusted us and our meticulous work.

Photos by Ivan Mikolji

The story continues with Part 2 and Part 3.

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Naturalists can mediate silent plankton invasions

Plankton can easily spread between water bodies on hydrobiological instruments if naturalists use inadequate biosecurity treatments in their work.

Homo sapiens is not only a great (perhaps the best) candidate for the world’s most invasive species award. Humans, due to their actions and technological wonders, are also at the forefront of good vectors for organismal dispersion. Can we break this inglorious streak?

Because humans will continue to interact with terrestrial and aquatic environments, it is impossible to stop the human-aided dispersal of organisms completely. The best we can do is minimise the risk of human-mediated organism dispersal events by implementing adequate biosecurity methods in our activity” explains Dr Wejnerowski from Adam Mickiewicz University (Poland). 

Plankton sampling using net. Photo by Sandra Wejnerowska

We should be aware that all our activities can affect biodiversity, and adequate biosecurity treatments should be applied whenever the risk of inadvertent spreading of organisms is non-zero” adds Dr Marcin Krzysztof Dziuba from the University of Michigan (United States of America).

Recently, a team of researchers from Adam Mickiewicz University, Istanbul University (Turkey), Åbo Akademi University (Finland), and the University of Michigan empirically proved that plankton net – a basic hydrobiological instrument of almost every aquatic scientist and water manager – is a good vector for the dispersal of various phyto- and zooplankton taxa, including species of high invasive potential. Nuisance, bloom-forming, also toxic filamentous cyanobacteria are efficient hitch-hikers, and they are able to successfully compete with native residents in the new environment.

Instructions for US citizens to avoid spreading invasive species during lake recreation. Photo by Marcin Krzysztof Dziuba

Apart from identifying hitch-hiking plankton on the net and its fate in the new environment, the paper they published in the journal NeoBiota also describes the most commonly used biosecurity treatments that naturalists worldwide use to prevent plankton spread between water bodies via the net.

Their findings sound disturbing: naturalists use inadequate or questionable biosecurity treatments. As revealed by the survey data, only 9% of plankton samplers clean plankton nets using disinfectant liquids after sampling, while a majority of people either rinse the net with distilled or tap water, immerse the net with an open outflow in the water body and let it dry, or do not care about the cleanness of the net after sampling at all.

Exemplary photos of some phyto- (A – Limnothrix redekei, B – Planktothrix agardhii, C – Pseudanabaena limnetica, D – Melosira varians, E – Desmodesmus armatus, F – Asterionella formosa, G – Tetradesmus obliquus) and zooplankton ( H – Keratella cochlearis f. typica) hitch-hikers on the plankton net. Micrograph I shows the plankton biomass on the surface of the plankton net after immersing the net with an open outflow in the water body (inadequate biosecurity treatment). Photos by Tumer Orhun Aykut and Łukasz Wejnerowski. Identification of organisms by Aleksandra Pełechata and Marcin Krzysztof Dziuba.

“Indeed, the reality presented in the paper is unsettling. It worries me when I think of how often I have accidentally facilitated dispersion of nuisance plankton and how much I contributed to the invasion of plankton taxa into new water bodies when using inappropriate biosecurity treatments in my fieldwork,” admits Dr Wejnerowski, and adds: “We do not mean to reinvent the wheel; the problem of aquatic organism dispersal through hydrobiological instruments is already known. For years, it was neglected despite some recalls from the scientific community. It comes back like a bad penny because it needs a complex solution from the society of aquatic naturalists. It should happen. After all, naturalists are a human line of defence, protection and rescue for nature.”

Research article:

Wejnerowski  Ł, Aykut TO, Pełechata A, Rybak M, Dulić T, Meriluoto J, Dziuba MK (2022) Plankton hitch-hikers on naturalists’ instruments as silent intruders of aquatic ecosystems: current risks and possible prevention. NeoBiota 73: 193-219. https://doi.org/10.3897/neobiota.73.82636

Plants quick to let their flowers fade for protection, show new field experiments and microbiome

Microbes growing on flowers have adverse effects on their fruit yields. This is why plants are quick to shed their flowers, reveals a new study involving both field experiments and plant microbiome analyses.

The present study looked into the wild ginger in Japan (Alpinia japonica, Zingiberaceae). Its flowers open in the morning and wither around sunset, as many one-day flower plants do.
Photo by Shoko Sakai.

Microbes growing on flowers have adverse effects on their yields. This is why plants are quick to shed their flowers, reveals a new study involving both field experiments and plant microbiome analysis.

The findings – made by a joint team of researchers from the Centre for Research on Ecology and Forestry Applications (CREAF, Spain) and Kyoto University (Japan) – are published in the open-access scholarly journal Metabarcoding and Metagenomics.

Scientifically speaking, flowers are a reproductive structure of a plant. Unlike mammals, though, perennial plants develop those de novo every season and only retain them for as long as needed.

While a few earlier studies have already looked into the variation in flower lifespan among species, they were mainly concerned with the tradeoff between plants spending energy on producing and maintaining their flowers, and the benefit they would achieve from retaining their reproductive organs.

Most flowers complete their role and wither or drop within only several days or even less.
Photo by Shoko Sakai.

Prior to the present study, however, the team found another perspective to look at the phenomenon: why did plants invest their energy –  even if the ‘cost’ was minimal – to produce fragile flowers that would wither in a matter of days, rather than investing a bit more of it to produce a lot more durable ones, thereby increasing their reproductive success?

“Interestingly, flower lifespan is negatively correlated with temperature; the hotter the environment where they bloom, the shorter the period a plant retains them. The phenomenon has been known for a long time.

Then, at some point, I came up with the hypothesis that antagonistic microbes, such as bacteria and fungi growing on flowers after the flower bud opens, must be the driver that shortens the lifespan of a flower. I doubted that it was a coincidence that microbes grow faster in higher temperatures,”

comments Shoko Sakai, author of the present study.

Flowers provide various habitats for microbes. They attract pollinators by secreting nectar, which is rich in sugars, and often contains other nutrients, such as amino acids and lipids. The stigma is a germination bed for pollen grains connected to a growth chamber for pollen tubes. It maintains humidity and nutrients necessary for pollen tube growth. Not surprisingly, abundance of the microbes increases over time on individual flowers after it opens.

Before jumping to their conclusions, the scientists set out to conduct field experiments to see what microbial communities would appear on flowers if their longevity was prolonged.

To do this, they took microbes from old flowers of wild ginger (Alpinia japonica) – a species found in Japan and blooming in the early summer when the hot and humid weather in the country is ideal for microbial growth. Then, they transferred the microbes to other wild ginger plants, whose flowers had just opened.

In line with their initial hypothesis, the research team noted that the plant produced significantly fewer fruits, yet there were no visible symptoms on the flowers or fruits to suggest a disease. However, an analysis of the plants’ microbiomes revealed the presence of several groups of bacteria that were increasing with time. As these bacteria can also be found on the flower buds of flowers that have not been treated, the bacteria is categorised as “resident” for the plant.

“So far, flower characteristics have mostly been studied in the context of their interactions with pollinators. Recent studies have raised the question whether we have overlooked the roles of microbes in the studies of floral characteristics.

For example, flower volatiles – which are often regarded as a primary pollinator attractant – can also function to suppress antagonistic microbes. The impacts of microbes on plant reproductive ecology may be more deeply embedded in the evolution of angiosperms than we have considered,”

Sakai concludes.
Flowers have various organs rich in nutrients, and each organ harbours a distinct microbiome. Flower visitors transfer microbes between and within flowers.
Photo by Shoko Sakai.

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Research article:

Jiménez Elvira N, Ushio M, Sakai S (2022) Are microbes growing on flowers evil? Effects of old flower microbes on fruit set in a wild ginger with one-day flowers, Alpinia japonica (Zingiberaceae). Metabarcoding and Metagenomics 6: e84331. https://doi.org/10.3897/mbmg.6.84331

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