On the Difficulty of Identifying Tropical Arthropods

I mentioned a few posts ago that I am presently in the slow and steady process of going through my backlog of unidentified photos. Starting chronologically from 2006, I have made it to 2011 (the year that my rate of photo taking exploded), and am now getting into my photos from a two month period I spent in Indonesia.


An unidentified lynx spider (Oxyopidae) from Buton, Southeastern Sulawesi, Indonesia

Of the first 121 arthropods that I photographed (between 2006 and June 2011), only eight have not yet been identified to at least genus. I use the genus level as the indicator of a good identification for most arthropods based on photographs, as many have very minute or hidden characters that separate congeners that are typically not visible in photos (of course there are exceptions to this: functionally indistinguishable genera and demonstably distinct congeners).


An unidentified stick insect (Phasmatodea) from Buton, Southeastern Sulawesi, Indonesia

My identification success rate has dropped dramatically now that I am getting in to my Indonesia photos. The simplest cause is that there are fewer online resources (e.g. Bugguide) for the fauna there. Socioeconomic and cultural disparities make the amount of research being conducted (and papers being published) about the organisms that live in different parts of the world vastly different. This is maybe best demonstrated by the rigor with which the flora and fauna of the British isles have been studied. Also, Indonesia (and the tropics in general) have long been shown to have much greater biodiversity than temperate regions, when looking broadly across taxa (through a phenomenon known as the latitudinal diversity gradient). None of this is news to most of you, but it all adds up to a strange paradox: the places with the most diversity have the least sampling effort (in general), and certainly the least sampling effort per taxon unit.


An unidentified millipede from Buton, Southeastern Sulawesi, Indonesia

What does this mean for me in terms of trying to get my photos identified? It’s going to get harder. But, I am ever vigilant, and I am digging in the literature and looking for group experts constantly to get names on these photos.

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