Brendan M. Lynch
KU News Service

Public names wasp — and Harry Potter fans would approve

Tue, 05/20/2014

LAWRENCE — The discovery of species that are new to science routinely draws public interest and news coverage from around the world — yet, the process of bestowing scientific names to these species remains something of a black box.

“To give a species a new name, the ‘binominal nomenclature’ is used, which Carl Linnaeus introduced in the 18th century,” said Laura Breitkreuz, a graduate research assistant with the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at the University of Kansas. “This includes two names — one for the genus and one for the species.

There is a whole set of rules to follow for naming species which, in the case of animals, is the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature. One of these rules includes for example that the name has to be in Latin or Greek.”

Ordinarily it’s describers of a new species that also select its name, but Breitkreuz and her lab colleagues wondered whether there wasn’t a better way to engage the public emotionally with biodiversity and its discovery via the naming process.

“The idea was to find a way to get people who don’t know much about the naming process of biological species engaged,” she said. “My former lab in Berlin, Germany, came up with the idea of bringing taxonomy closer to the people.”

Breitkreuz and her colleagues selected an attractive red-black digger wasp from a museum collection of undescribed species, then decided to poll 300 people from the public to choose from a selection of scientific names.

“For that we had a booth in the ‘Night of the Museums’ in Berlin with several different activities,” said Breitkreuz. “I was there with the rest of the lab to explain everything and answer the visitors’ questions about taxonomy and nomenclature."

While the wasp already belonged to the genus Ampulex, museum visitors at Berlin’s Museum für Naturkunde were offered ballots to select from four species names: "Ampulex bicolor,” to denote the wasp’s black-red coloration; “Ampulex mon,” to recognize the earliest-known ethnic group in Thailand, where the wasp was discovered; “Ampulex dementor,” referring to dementors, sinister creatures that consume people's souls in the “Harry Potter” series, and “Ampulex plagiator,” because the new wasp is known to imitate ants in its appearance and movement.

Of the 272 ballots returned, 39 percent of participants chose “Ampulex dementor” from “Harry Potter.” Breitkreuz and her colleagues’ findings were just published by the peer-reviewed journal PLOSone.

“It was clear that the people voted for rather ‘nonscientific’ names and ones that they could identify with — like a character from the ‘Harry Potter’ books,” she said. “After all, a dementor wasp is way cooler than just a bicolored wasp.”

Because such public participation could build interest in the world’s biodiversity, which she described as imperiled and still largely undiscovered, the KU researcher said she favored allowing the public to name species more often.

“Yes, they should — it would help to get more people involved in taxonomy, and maybe some kids would be ‘recruited’ to study this important field of biology,” Breitkreuz said. “But this process takes much more time than a single scientist describing and naming a species; therefore, it can’t be done too often.”

The researcher said that more public engagement with taxonomy even could spotlight global problems like health, food and conservation.

“Describing new species from areas that are endangered helps to draw attention to these regions,” Breitkreuz said. “Taxonomy also affects these problems by finding organisms that can potentially be useful and making them accessible.”

Breitkreuz’ colleagues in the research were Michael Ohl, Volker Lohrmann, Lukas Kirschey and Stefanie Krause at the Museum für Naturkunde.

KU in the news
The Daily MailSat, 04/25/2015
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Wanna Skype? Chancellor gets creative to surprise Truman winner. See it here:
Rock Chalk! Junior Ashlie Koehn named KU's 18th Truman Scholar
Ashlie Koehn, a University of Kansas junior from Burns studying in Kyrgyzstan, interrupted helping her host family prepare dinner to make a Skype call on Monday evening.

RT @kulibraries : Check out this news feature & then check out his book with us: #KULibraries #KUWorks…
Wanna Skype? Chancellor gets creative to surprise Truman winner From KU News Service: Ashlie Koehn, a University of Kansas junior from Burns studying in Kyrgyzstan, interrupted helping her host family prepare dinner to make a Skype call on Monday evening. To her surprise, Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little was on the other end of the call letting Koehn know she had been named a 2015 Harry S. Truman Scholar. Koehn is the 18th KU student to be named a Truman Scholar and the only 2015 recipient from the state of Kansas. Earlier this month, she was also named a 2015 Udall Scholar. And in spite of a distance of more than 10,800 kilometers and 11 time zones, Koehn’s thrill from hearing the news from the chancellor came through loud and clear. “Ashlie’s experience at KU epitomizes a quality undergraduate experience. She challenged herself in her coursework, exposed herself to different research opportunities, studied abroad in Germany, Switzerland and Kyrgyzstan, and participated in both student government and community service projects,” Gray-Little said. “This is quite a year for Ashlie. Her hard work is a wonderful reflection on her and also a great reflection on the university, and we all congratulate her.” Each new Truman Scholar receives up to $30,000 for graduate study. Scholars also receive priority admission and supplemental financial aid at some premier graduate institutions, leadership training, career and graduate school counseling, and special internship opportunities within the federal government. Koehn, a member of KU’s nationally recognized University Honors Program, is majoring in environmental studies, economics and international studies. Her goal after earning her KU degree is to pursue a master’s degree in economics at either the London School of Economics or the University of Reading, with a focus on the economics of climate change. In 2014, she received KU’s Newman Civic Engagement Award for her work establishing the Coalition against Slavery and Trafficking. Her involvement with the issue was sparked by Hannah Britton, associate professor of political science and women, gender, and sexuality studies, who hosted national conference on contemporary slavery at KU three years ago. “Ashlie and I met several times to think about what KU students could contribute to the issue of slavery and human trafficking, and the result was her founding of KU CAST,” Britton said. “After a year as president, Ashlie successfully handed the organization over to the next student leader. She demonstrated her strong leadership qualities by setting a unique goal and then pursuing it with her sense of passion, engagement and dedication. No matter the country or context, her leadership strength is evident in her coursework, her public service and her work experiences.” The University Honors Program works with a campus committee to select KU’s nominees for the Truman Scholarship and supports them during the application process. Anne Wallen, assistant director of national fellowships and scholarships, noted it was an amazing ruse to pull off the surprise. Originally, the call was set up to be between Wallen and Koehn. “I was totally not prepared to be greeted by Chancellor Gray-Little, but it was an amazing surprise for sure,” Koehn said. “As a first-generation student, it took time to learn the collegiate system, but my parents taught me to be resourceful and independent from a young age and KU and the Kansas Air National Guard have provided me with the opportunities to drive me into the future, both at graduate school and in my career. I plan to use the Truman Scholarship to pursue a career as an environmental economist helping to shape future trade agreements and leverage action on important international environmental issues, particularly concerning climate change.” Koehn also had a surprise of her own for the chancellor — the meal she was helping to prepare was not exactly typical Kansas dinner fare. On the menu with her host family in Kyrgyzstan on Monday was a traditional Kyrgyz meal called Beshbarmak, or “five fingers,” because you eat it with your hands. The dish is made of horse and sheep and was being prepared as a birthday celebration for Koehn’s host mom. Chancellor Gray-Little, as she signed off from Skype, made sure to encourage Koehn to enjoy her Beshbarmak. Koehn is the daughter of Rodney and Carolyn Koehn of Burns. She graduated from Fredric Remington High School in Moundridge. She is an active member of the Kansas Air National Guard and currently on leave while studying abroad in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. She is a member of the KU Global Scholars Program and a past member of the Student Senate. In addition to being named a 2015 Truman and Udall scholar, she was named a 2014 Boren Scholar and Gilman Scholar and in 2013 was named the Kansas Air National Guard Airman of the Year.

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