Paul Beuk, Curator&Taxonomist|DogaBilim Talks
Those who are interested in flies already know you in Turkey, but for those who do not know you, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I already started studying insects during my secondary school in the early 1980, albeit pretty amateuristic. It was during my biology study at the Wageningen Agricultural University that the work became more professional. Even then taxonomy and systematics (bringing order to the natural world by naming species and establishing their relationships) were under pressure but I nevertheless chose to speciliase in that field. Duting a practical reserarch at the Natural History Museum in London I first met some of the ‘grand names’ in the field of entomology and laid the foundations of what turned out to me my ‘network’. After obtaining my degree I did a PhD on singing cicadas of Southeast Asia but afterwards I returned back to flies and midges (Diptera). The study of Diptera was, for a long time, one with very few specialists in the Netherlands. Because of that I started looking at many different groups and felt the need for a new comprehensive list of all species for our country, the Netherlands. It was published in 2002. In the mean time I had become, by default, the specialist for that family in our country. Luckily, the study of flies and midges has now become more widespread in our country and there a numerous new specialists. Over the last 25 years I have been offered a lot of material from different families from different countries. I consider myself a generalist specialist in Diptera and I apply that to the material I have been offered. Currently I am working as Curator of Biology at the Maastricht Natural History Museum. As such I can spend relatively little time studying Diptera because I am also responsible for the bilogical exhibitions and collections as well.
Why was Diptera.info founded?
The Diptera.info site formally started in 2004. I had been trying to set up a general site to spread knowledge about Diptera in the period before that, including links to resources, websites, collections, literature, etc. I decided to leave that be for a while when the mailing list for robberflies (Asilidae) folded. The communication platform was thus gone and I launched the site to provide a new platform in the form of an Asilidae forum. Since Diptera.info should deal with hall Diptera and not just robberflies, other forums were created as well and a collection of other relevant links was created. The website was then promoted by replying to posts in many related internet forums dealing with identification requests by including the link in my signature. In the mean time it has proved to answer a need, especially for those looking for identification of insects they have photographed. Many images have also been added to a gallery. The user base is by now more than 4500 (though not all active) and consists of both amateurs and (world) specialist, many interesting species, records and observations have surfaced, including species new to science. It is a worldwide network of those in some way interested in Diptera and so far even survives the rise of social media platforms like Facebook, with many dipterists groups.
How do you feel when you discover a new species?
Happy. But admittedly, the circumstances determine considerably how happy. Finding a new species from a region that has received little attention in biological research is very different from finding one in a region that has a history of more than 250 years of work of naturalists. So a new species from, for example, the jungle in Papua New Guinea, make you happy and you wonder how many more you will find from the same sample. Getting one from Turkey will be less frequent because of the previous work on the region is more extensive than that in Papua New Guinea and there is a considerable overlap with the Northwestern European fauna. Finding a new species in the Netherlands is much more extraordinary because it is bang in the middle of probably the best well-known part of the world (entomologically speaking). That brings a broad smile to your face.
Do you think that forums and scientific publishing sites contribute to science?
Yes, they do. The name ‘scientific publishing sites’ is in that sense self-explanatory, but some of those, for example of many scientific journals, hide the content behind paywalls and thus limit the availability of the knowledge to less fortunate (either in the strict sense that they have little funds available to obtain literature or those in smaller or poorer institutions without access to a library carrying important or specialist journals, either in print or digital). Open access to scientific papers should be promoted and that also means that researchers with less financial means can publish more widely in open access journals without having to pay a considerable amount to publish open access. This is also where forums com into play. A forum like Diptera.info has a large user base including amateurs, specialists and everything in between. This means it offers an opportunity to exchange images, observations, records and have discussions in a relaxed way without a prior bias that what a newcomer may have observed cannot be valuable. A number of species were discovered in the forums in requests for identification, new host records, new country records and valuable observations of behaviour. It has resulted in numerous publications (including in peer reviewed journals) and has prompted several of the site members to start to pursue a career in entomology (either as professional or specialist amateur).
Many fly species cannot be identified from photography, but in many cases we only have photographs. Do you approve of identifying the species with no samples available?
Depending on the group you look at you can identify more or fewer species reliably from photographs. In general you might expect that the larger species can be identified from pictures more reliably but that is not always the case. Even among the large species there may be species that are morphologically so close that a random photo does not necessarily show the character(s) needed to separate species. So, in any group, both the smaller and the larger one, the photo needs to catch the right (combination of) character(s). One side is the issue of reliable identification is of course the person doing the identification. It can be the case that one specialist may be able to say much more about a photographed specimen than an other. Knowledge from field observations of living and active specimens is often different from knowledge based on examining museum collections. So it is important to note that the context (catching the habitat on the photo, perhaps something of the behaviour, managing to photograph both sexes) can be just as important as catching any specific morphological character. A photographer with entomological knowledge is may be much more likely to get pictures that can be identified.
What should someone who approaches flies scientifically do? Which books can he use as a resource?
Ah, that is not an easy question. Erica McAllister has just published her second book on flies. Both give an introduction to Diptera with many interesting facts and storied about flies and midges. You read about Diptera in general and about many specialities and peculiarities that can be found within the insect order. It may give the aspiring reader a direction to chose. Stephen Marshall is a dipterist who is an excellent observer and also has a talent for photography. He is widely travelled and has compiled a book on Diptera that is well illustrated and offers a source of knowledge about many families. A next step would be to start working with the general manuals that have been compiled for several major regions, for example the ‘Contributions to a Manual of Palaearctic Diptera’ for the Eurasian continent. These manuals offer full scientific introductions to morphology (both adult and pre-adult), biology, evolution and economic importance (agriculture, medicine) and offer keys to identify the families of Diptera. Each family is then also similarly treated with keys to the genera and lists of literature for further study and identification. But before investing in books it is very useful to spend time on the internet. In the case of Diptera the Diptera.info site is one of the possible sites that you can visit to get a first impression, find what might be your main field of interest. Hoverflies in the are often quickly identified, have photographic guides, lots of background and provide an easy access. In contract, black-winged fungus gnats (Sciaridae) and scuttle flies (Phoridae) in the forum are often marked as unidentifiable (from photo at least) and are extremely suitable if you like a challenge and want to make a mark in the field of dipterology.
What is the fly family you find most interesting?
Well, like I said earlier, I am something of a generalist specialist, so I cannot name one. Each family has its own attraction, either because of their biology, morphology or the challenges encountered when studying it.
Why did you choose flies over birds, mammals or reptiles?
Mostly it just happened. When I was young I was member of a youth league for nature observation. Within the local branches it was customary to address as many subjects of nature observation as possible, even though each local branch usually had a favourite subject. My local branch was mainly focussed on bird watching and, though I like bird watching, I did not have the extra drive needed to participate in all the organised birding activities (an average extra hour of cycling to do that because I lived further away did not help). However, the same youth league offer introductory literature for insect study as well and that was something I could even do in our back garden. When I found out there is much more to be discovered about insects it was not even a conscious decision to become an entomologist. Since most of the introductory books were on flies and most of the insects in our garden were too, I guess it came naturally to specialise in Diptera. And then there is something like first loves: Once captures, never released. 😉