He held the bottle A thin, thick sauce, with unmistakable black specks on top – a sauce, perhaps, but one you wouldn’t want to eat. As soon as they were poured into a white plastic tray, the pieces were dissolved into insects. Here there were butterflies and moths, the delicate structure of their wings dimmed after a week or two of alcohol. Here were beetles and bees and many gray-looking flies, all clustered together, including large wasps, their stings and stings still bright.
Michael Sharkey took out the thin lines and started looking at his fish. It included everything small and winged that lives in the swamps and forests around his home, high in the Colorado Rockies, and which had had the misfortune, over the past two weeks, of flying into a tent-like trap he had built out front. at his house and we had emptied that morning.
Although Sharkey is a hymenopterist, an expert on the order of insects that includes wasps, he ignored the obvious stings and stings. He ignored, in fact, all the creatures that the average person would recognize as wasps—or even recognize them at all. Instead, he began scooping out small purple particles from the soup, looking at them through special glasses with a large cloth similar to a jeweled dress. After being dried and placed under the microscope on his table, this first specimen revealed itself to be a well-rounded insect with many jointed antennae and pointed wings. This was a braconid wasp, part of a family of creatures that Sharkey had been studying for years. Entomologists believe that there are tens of thousands of braconid species that share this planet, which have all kinds of needs for the environment. But maybe many people have never heard of it, they just don’t know that it is true. The main parts of the braconid family, as the saying goes, are still unknown to science.
As a taxonomist, Sharkey is part of a small group of people who can transform unknown insects into known species. When some entomologists find specimens that they thought had never been described, taxonomists are the experts they call to investigate whether something that seems new to us is actually new to us. If so, a taxonomist can welcome it into the public eye by publicly giving the species a Latin name, along with a formal description of the physical appearance that makes it unique and recognizable to future observers. The practice “hasn’t changed much” in the last 200 years, British musicologist Gavin Broad told me—except that these days “we have great pictures.”
I first came across Sharkey’s name a few months before I called him and asked if we could look for bugs again. I can’t remember exactly when I started seeing that name slowly, and always the words “et al.”— in many places. There were long criticisms of Sharkey et al. appearing in the scientific literature, and then, later, there were responses to the criticisms, and responses to the responses. And there was some humor among the entomologists in my Twitter feed, with some calling the work careless or embarrassing or simply writing “Wooooooof.”
“Sharky et al.” and an abstract of a paper that appeared in a journal ZooKeys in 2021, along with a list of subsequent publications that used similar methods. That first paper wasn’t the kind of work that usually stirs up such a stir. In it, Sharkey and a group of co-authors identified a new species of braconid wasp that was caught in malaise traps in Costa Rica. But instead of just naming a few species, they called them 403. And instead of writing a detailed description of each new wasp, the authors simply included a picture and a small part of their genetic code.
The technique that Sharkey and his co-authors used, called DNA barcoding, is a way to quickly change and differentiate species. Researchers analyze a small piece of DNA at a specific location in each creature’s genome, insert a small piece of DNA into it, and then insert a small piece of DNA into the group. When DNA differs from one organism to another by more than a few percent, it is taken as a sign that their evolutionary history has been different for a long time, possibly dividing them into different species.
DNA barcoding is a popular scientific tool today. But other scientists said Sharkey and his colleagues pushed its application too far. They considered the work to be “turbo taxonomy” or, as the taxonomist Miles Zhang put it, “taxonomic vandalism,” the term for new taxa without sufficient evidence of diversity. Opponents argued that the project would disrupt the entire process of naming natural resources, making it easier for people to understand. Zhang—who is actually Sharkey’s “grandson” student, who studied with one of Sharkey’s former students—was so upset that he was devastated. ZooKeys went on to publish papers from Sharkey et al. that he wrote to the newspaper, “I’m done with you, go get a new editor.”