The earthquake and subsequent fire that tore through San Francisco in 1906 killed more than 3,000 people, left another 225,000 homeless, and destroyed some 28,000 buildings, leaving around $400 million worth of damage in its wake.
Among the destruction was the building that housed the California Academy of Science—and the academy’s collection of animal holotypes, single specimens used to define a newly discovered species.
“What they did after the earthquake is they made a vault for their holotypes,” said Neal Evenhuis, an entomologist at Hawaii’s Bishop Museum. “If there was an earthquake, it would be sent in an elevator to an earthquake-proof room so nothing could ever happen to those things.”
The point of Evenhuis’ story is this: Holotypes are worth protecting. “Having those specimens is pretty important to knowing what we have on planet Earth. So you don’t want to have anything happen to them,” he said. “Especially if a lot of things go extinct in our time, you have a history of what was there.”
But he has another point, too: The record can exist even when the specimens don’t. In a paper published yesterday in the journal ZooKeys, Evenhuis and Steve Marshall, a professor of biology at the University of Guelph, identified a new species of fly based on photographs alone, the first insect to be named without any supporting physical evidence.
Last year, Evenhuis was putting together a chapter about bee flies for a reference book on the flies of Africa, and asked Marshall, a prolific photographer, for images he could use in the text. One in particular stuck out. It had a distinct black-and-yellow pattern and an oddly shaped body. “I’ve worked on bee flies since the 1970s and never seen anything that looked like this,” he said. “I want to see this thing. It’s obviously new. I couldn’t even figure out what genus it belonged to.”