Meet the Winners:

Dr. Thalles Pereira

2024 BioOne Ambassador

BioOne Ambassador Award

Partnerships for the Goals: Citizens and Scientists Find and Describe a New Species

snakeworm

When I first moved from Bahia-Brazil (+30°C) to Alaska-USA (-30°C) to study fly diversity, I had no idea how this move would change my world and how the results of my research could change the world. Working with insects can be challenging and rewarding, most of the time. These tiny creatures can help you answer questions about Nature that could be impossible with other groups.

The first time I read the UNESCO and Sustainable Development Goals, the number 17 – “Partnership for the goals” caught my attention, it is magnificent to make a difference through Partnership! During the development of this project, I thought, why not make a partnership between scientists and citizens for the goal of describing a new species to science?

This project started back in 2007 when a citizen from Ester-Alaska contacted one of my coauthors asking if he knew about the thousands of weird small insect larvae that migrate together in a snake-like configuration! 15 years later, when I started working at the University of Alaska Museum of the North, we found out that it was a new species of snakeworm gnat that we needed to describe. Snakeworm gnats are members of the family Sciaridae, and are commonly known as dark-winged, dusty-winged, or black fungus gnats.

They are called snakeworm gnats because they form larval masses moving in columns, which most of the time resemble a snake. In a conveyor-belt fashion, they crawl on top of one another in multiple layers. The larvae in the rear crawl over the top of their companions and make faster forward progress than those on the bottom, who eventually are exposed and start moving on top of those who have already progressed and gained contact with the substrate. Since so little is known about the remarkable behavior of snakeworms, both citizens and scientists are curious to know more about these creatures. When I discovered that it was a citizen who had first reported this species in nature, I felt inspired to include more lay people in the process of describing a new species. Therefore, my colleagues and I decided to invite adults and children who participated in the University of Alaska Fairbanks bug camp to vote on the new species name, as this is an essential step in the process of describing new species. Of the three potential names, Sciara serpens (Latin for snake) received the most votes, which is fitting as the larvae migration looks like a snake. To describe the new species we used morphological characters, molecular data from the COI (Cytochrome c oxidase subunit I) gene, and citizen science data.

Using citizen data from emails, Facebook groups, and iNaturalist, we found that there have been more observations of this behavior throughout Alaska than we imagined, including one in the Denali National Park.

A classroom with kids sitting at tables.
In my research, the citizens (kids and adults) choose the new species' name, in this photo, they vote.

But why is describing a new species so important? Scientists estimate that there are around 7.5 million species of plants and animals still to be found and described. Naming a new species is one of the first steps to deeply understand nature, physiology, ecology, and evolutionary aspects of a species. Using a species name is one way to unify the studies about an organism and compare it across the world. This is especially important when studying invasive and endemic species because without determining which species exist in an area it is impossible to determine which are invasive. For example, the snakeworm species that we described is endemic to Alaska and therefore would give scientists a baseline for understanding potential changes in Alaskan biodiversity. Such changes are occurring at a faster rate in Arctic and subarctic regions, like Alaska, where also the global change has its impact amplified, compared with other places.

Finally, engaging citizens in the process of doing science has been growing every year around the world, with free apps and social platforms making it easier and easier to do so. In an ever-changing world, where species extinction may be faster than species description, inviting citizen scientists to describe a new species allows them to help change the world through scientific discovery and improve their scientific literacy. This project changed my world when reiterated the importance of connecting with citizens and the local community through science. And it probably changed the world of many people involved, I bet this topic still reverberates in family conversations as “I helped describe a new species!”

This response is in reference to:

Discovery of snakeworm gnats in Alaska: a new species of Sciara Meigen (Diptera: Sciaridae) based on morphological, molecular, and citizen science data

Integrative Systematics: Stuttgart Contributions to Natural History, 6(2): 91-111. (2023).
Thalles P. Lavinscky Pereira, Kai Heller, Mitsuaki Sutou, Derek S. Sikes

Dr. Thalles Pereira

Dr. Thalles Pereira

Partnerships for the Goals: Citizens and Scientists Find and Describe a New Species

Passionate about biodiversity and taxonomy, I did my PhD. on ant parasitoid flies – Phoridae – at the University of São Paulo. After working at UAF – Alaska, I started a postdoc at the Museum of Comparative Zoology Harvard. Solving problems, connecting with people, and answering questions about nature is what motivates me.

What drew you to the research topic you explored in your submission?

When I first moved from Bahia-Brazil (+30°C) to Alaska-USA (-30°C) to study fly diversity, I had no idea how this move would change my world and how the results of my research could change the world. The fact that this enigma has been unanswered for 15 years, and that it was a citizen who had first reported this new species in nature, drew me to the research topic. I also felt inspired to include more lay people in the process of describing the new species.

How do you see your work contributing to public policy, citizen science, and/or science education more broadly?

Our work had a huge contribution to citizen science and science education since Alaska citizens (adults and children) were protagonists in the process of describing the new species. Including them encourages current and future generations to seek out more science-related topics. In addition, our paper was promoted broadly in many platforms, as a podcast (eg. Spotify), and big newspapers (eg. Yahoo news and Newsweek Magazine), showing the importance of the dissemination of science through non scientific platforms.

What are your continuing research goals for the future (near and/or far)? What topics, areas, subjects are you interested in exploring?

My research focuses on the diversity of flies (Diptera), especially the Phoridae family, using morphological and molecular data (barcoding with nanopore sequencing technology). Additionally, my interests include natural history collections-based research, taxonomy, systematics, and co-phylogeny of ant parasitoid flies (Apocephalus series: Phoridae: Diptera). Although my previous papers and new species described were based on neotropical specimens, my new project will focus on Alaskan and Beringian specimens. I will be using Large-scale Integrative Taxonomy, aiming to better understand the diversity of Phoridae in the Arctic and Subarctic Regions and its distribution patterns across Alaska, Canada, and Sweden.

Is there anything else you want to share about you and/or your research?

Engaging citizens in the process of doing science has been growing every year around the world, with free apps and social platforms making it easier and easier to do so. In an ever-changing world, where species extinction may be faster than species description, inviting citizen scientists to describe a new species allows them to help change the world through scientific discovery and improve their scientific literacy.

ContactInformation

Dr. Thalles Pereira

thallesplp@gmail.com

For information about the Stuttgart State Museum of Natural History, please visit their website:

Stuttgart State Museum of Natural History

For questions about BioOne or the BioOne Ambassador Award, please contact:

Amanda Rogers

BioOne Publishing
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