Do new species descriptions of ‘charismatic megafauna’ get more citations? The biodiversity bias continues…

12 February 2014 by Christopher Buddle, posted in Biodiversity, Miscellaneous

A few months ago I wrote about 'biodiversity bias' in scientific publications: in that post, I argued that there were fewer published papers for hyper-diverse taxa (i.e., arthropods) relative to low-diversity megafauna (e.g., things with a backbone). Earlier in 2013, Morgan Jackson wrote about the 'cute & fuzzy' factor related to how much the media gets in a frenzy when a new mammal species is discovered relative to, for example, a new species or Porifera (and a Porifera is….?), and he pondered on the importance of rarity relative to the media hype.

Juvenile Cercopithecus lomamiensis. SO CUTE AND FUZZY!

Juvenile Cercopithecus lomamiensis. A new mammal species discovered in 2012. SO CUTE AND FUZZY! (photo by Hart et al., shared under Creative Commons)

In this post, I wanted to follow up on both of these and ask whether or not a new species description gets more citations when that new species could be characterized as 'charismatic megafauna' (defined as 'animals with human-like eyes, and a backbone'; the sorts of animals that make us go 'oohhhh' and 'ahhhh'). Every new species description ends up in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, and thus you can track, over time, how many other papers cite that original description. In theory, the 'impact' of a particular paper can be measured in part by this number of citations. Although this method is not without problems, 'number of citations' is one way to compare, on a relative basis, how many people might read and find a publication important, and cite that paper.

I went back to the year 2008 (see the reference section, below, for the list), and randomly* pulled out new species descriptions for a range of animal taxa**. Five groups can be easily placed a the 'mini-fauna' group (i.e., invertebrates), and five could be considered mega-fauna (some of which are charismatic). I then looked at citations records for those 10 scientific papers, and here is the result:


The number of citations for papers describing new species, arranged by relative diversity

The number of citations for papers describing new species, arranged by relative diversity


Quite clearly, new species descriptions of larger animals with a backbone (the megafauna) get cited more often, and as Morgan Jackson has pointed out, this preliminary analysis suggests that new species discoveries make a bigger splash in lower-diversity taxa: when a new species or bird, bat or frog is discovered, it makes a scientific impact.

I am not an 'angry entomologist' who feels that my discipline is understudied, and that it's doom and gloom for the science of the many-segmented critters of the world. That is not the point of the post: the point is to illustrate a trend (one that requires follow-up!), and seek some explanations:

Undoubtedly, it's easier to write a press release for a new species discovery when that species is so easily recognizable to everyone - something that we can relate to. Whether we like it or not, our society is more inclined to have an immediate association and connection with a mammal or a bird than, say, a twisted-wing parasite or a wolf spider.  Also, when we feel we are close to knowing the complete diversity of a group (e.g. birds, mammals), it's very exciting when "just one more" species is discovered (discovering a needle in a haystack is amazing in part because of its improbability). There are also some truly wonderful press releases and blogs when another charismatic megafauna is discovered. They are slick, well-written, and with great photographs. Kudos to the mammalogists, ornithologists and herpetologists!

Paraplatyptilia atlantica, a new Lepidoptera species described in 2008. An example of mini-fauna. (photo by Bernard Landry)

Paraplatyptilia atlantica, a new Lepidoptera species described in 2008. An example of mini-fauna. (photo by B. Landry)

If invertebrate taxonomists were to put out press releases every time a new species was discovered, we'd be inundated with such releases, every day. Despite how magnificent invertebrates are, I think the broader public (and media offices, etc) would tire rather quickly.  I also think that mini-fauna taxonomists are just not accustomed to the idea of making their new discoveries into big news. So, although I don't think every new species of insect should warrant a full-fledged press release, I do think we can do better, and it's important that the big discoveries get promoted. There are exceptions, of course, as some terrific stories were done recently for some new beetle species discoveries (see here and here), and my colleague recently wrote a great blog piece about some new fly species discovered by researchers working out of McGill's Lyman Museum (blogs, by the way, are a terrific place to publish a plain language summary of *any* research results).

There is also an important point to make about how scientists cite primary research results. Although I don't know the literature around the megafauna descriptions, I do know that entomologists seldom cite the taxonomic literature. This is a serious problem - whenever we publish a paper about a particular species or group of species, we must make it a habit to start citing the descriptions***. Related, very few biodiversity studies cite the full suite of literature used to identify the species within their own inventories, and many of those resources include new species descriptions. We really have to work to cite each other's research, which in turn will improve the citation statistics for the minifauna new species descriptions.

Fundamentally, we just need to find a little more balance in reporting, and that means all players (authors, journals, media offices) must find a way to make some noise when new invertebrates are discovered. I often hear taxonomists lamenting that their discipline is quickly becoming a lost science, with lack of funding and lack of interest from today's students. Part of the problem is that some of these taxonomists fail to make an effort to promote their new discoveries.  This makes a difference because a bit of positive press would certainly help people gain a greater appreciation for the real diversity on the planet - that diversity (which is being lost rapidly) is in the minifauna, not the megafauna.

It's time to play some catch-up and see that new species descriptions of invertebrates can have a longer-lasting impact.


Bolton et al. 2008. Monteiro's Storm-petrel Oceanodroma monteiroi: a new species from the Azores. Ibis 150: 717-727.

Deltshev, C. 2008. Two new spider species, Malthonica bozhkovi sp nov and Tegenaria paragamiani sp nov from Rhodopy Mountains (Bulgaria and Greece) (Araneae : Agelenidae). Zootaxa 1872: 37-44.

Evans et al. 2008. A new species of clawed frog (genus Xenopus) from the Itombwe Massif, Democratic Republic of the Congo: implications for DNA barcodes and biodiversity conservation. Zootaxa 1780: 55-68

Esselsten et al. 2008. A New Species of Desmalopex (Pteropodidae) from the Philippines, with a Phylogenetic Analysis of the Pteropodini. Journal of Mammalogy 89: 815-825.

Geiger DL 2008. New species of scissurellids from the Austral Islands, French Polynesia, and the Indo-Malayan Archipelago  (Gastropoda: Vetigastropoda: Scissurellidae, Anatomidae, Larocheidae) The Nautilus 122: 185-200.

Grismer et al. 2008. Three new species of Cyrtodactylus (Squamata: Gekkonidae) from Peninsular Malaysia. Zootaxa 1921: 1-23.

Landry, B & Gielis C. 2008. Key to the Paraplatyptilia species of eastern Canada with description of a new species (Lepidoptera: Pterophoridae). The Canadian Entomologist 140: 143-148.

Motomura H & Senou H. 2008.  A new species of the scorpionfish genus Scorpaena (Scorpaenidae) from Izu Peninsula, Pacific coast of Japan. J. FishBiology 72: 1761-1772

Neira, C, Decraemer W.  2009.  Desmotersia levinae, a new genus and new species of free-living nematode from bathyal oxygen minimum zone sediments off Callao, Peru, with discussion on the classification of the genus Richtersia (Chromadorida: Selachinematidae). Organisms Diversity & Evolution. 9:1-2.

Osawa & Chan 2008. A New Species of Dentalopagurus (Crustacea: Decapoda: Anomura) from Deep Waters off Taiwan. Bulletin of Marine Science, Volume 82: 263-273


* My methods were not truly random, but rather I 'googled' new species descriptions for 2008, and just grabbed ones that popped up in the search. This was not systematic nor particularly scientific, but I believe strongly that if and when someone does a proper and complete analysis of this issue, the take-home message will be the same.  I also picked 2008 for no particular reason, other than I thought five years was a reasonable time window to assess a paper's impact. Also, not all of the references are 'single species' descriptions, but I'm not sure this makes a difference.

** I picked 'recognizable groups' that are loosely based on phylogeny but are not necessarily at the same hierarchy in the animal kingdom. I do not believe that how I loosely arranged these will affect the main result. I also focused on animals, only because that's the part of the diversity of life that I'm more familiar with. I would be *most* delighted if someone picked up this idea and do a proper analysis across a broader range of the diversity of life.

***I will try to do this. I really will!


2 Responses to “Do new species descriptions of ‘charismatic megafauna’ get more citations? The biodiversity bias continues…”

  1. The Final Segment › Expiscor Reply | Permalink

    […] look: another new species described -it's a 'cryptic' Lepidoptera. Given my ranting about the lack of fanfare of new species descriptions for arthropods, I thought I better make some noise with this […]

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