Assassin ate


I came upon this interesting scene last month while hiking through Allen David Broussard Catfish Creek Preserve State Park, which preserves some of the highest quality remnants of sand scrub habitat on the Lake Wales Ridge of central Florida. The spider seems to be Peucetia viridans (green lynx spider), widespread across the southern U.S. and distinguished by its bright transparent green color with red spots and black spines (Emerton 1961). These largest of North American lynx spiders hunt diurnally on low shrubs with an agility excelled only by the jumping spiders (Salticidae) and aggressively attack their insect prey. In this case, the prey is one of the so-called “bee assassins” of the genus Apiomerus (Hemiptera: Reduviidae). The common and generic names of these insects both derive from their habit of preying upon bees, not only on flowers but also by ambushing them at nest entrances, although other insects are preyed upon as well. Ironically, this particular assassin himself got ate.

An interesting situation was uncovered while I tried to determine which species of Apiomerus was represented by the prey. By virtue of its pale ventrals with the front and hind margins black, it keys to A. spissipes in a literature-based key to Florida Reduviidae (Bierle et al. 2002) – one of two species considered widely distributed across the eastern U.S. In reality, however, it appears that this individual represents another species named almost 30 years ago but which remains officially undescribed. As explained in this BugGuide post by Daniel Swanson, the genus was revised by Berkeley grad student Sigurd Leopold Szerlip in partial fulfillment of the requirements for a Ph.D., who proposed a number of taxonomic acts including the description of 19 new species. Among these were eastern U.S. populations to which the name A. spissipes had been applied, with those in Florida being described as the new species “A. floridensis“. However, dissertations do not meet the criteria of publication according to Article 8 of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN 1999), and none of the dissertation was formally published. Thus, “A. floridensis” remains an invalid, unpublished name.  This is a most unfortunate situation, as Swanson considers the dissertation to be well done.  It is not only names, but important information about life histories and detailed genitalic studies that remain unavailable to the scientific community as well.  What are the nomenclatural impacts of this work remaining unpublished?  Is this as much a failure by the advising professor as by Szerlip himself?  What ethical considerations would need to be addressed in order for it to be published in absentia, or is this even possible?

Photo details: Canon 100mm macro lens on Canon EOS 50D (manual mode), ISO-100, 1/250 sec, f/13, MT-24EX flash 1/2 power through diffuser caps.


Bierle, S., E. Dunn, S. Frederick, S. Garrett, J. Harbison, D. Hoel, B. Ley and S. Weihman. 2002. A literature-based key to Reduviidae (Heteroptera) of Florida (assassin bugs, and thread-legged bugs). Unpublished manuscript, University of Florida, Department of Entomology and Nematolgy, Insect Classification ENY 4161/6166, 18 pp.

Emerton, J. H. 1961. The Common Spiders of the United States. Dover Publications, Inc., N.Y., xx + 227 pp.

International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature [ICZN]. 1999. International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, 4th Edition. The International Trust for Zoological Nomenclature, c/o Natural History Museum, London. xxix + 306 pp.

Szerlip, S. L. 1980. Biosystematic revision of the genus Apiomerus (Hemiptera: Reduviidae) in North and Central America. Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of California, Berkley, CA.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2009

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20 thoughts on “Assassin ate

  1. Greetings Ted,

    A fabulous drama you’ve captured, and a fabulous question you’ve left us with. As you noted, it’s much more than a name that’s involved here, and we’re interested to see how some of your other readers approach your question.

  2. Hi Ted,

    An unpublished thesis isn’t an uncommon problem, but it is pretty difficult to deal with. Most theses must have a statement to the effect that the student alone created the contents, so it is clearly their intellectual property. An adviser can urge, cajole, threaten, bluster, or whatever, but legally it isn’t their IP. Besides, the adviser probably has enough to do getting their own research published.

    In the second publication resulting from my PhD thesis I had to redescribe an animal that had been well described in a South African PhD thesis 13 years before, but never published. That was before email (amazing there was such a time), and my letters went unanswered. I conserved the name proposed in the thesis, although since I had rediscovered the animal on my own, there was no moral obligation to do so.

    That is one approach. Another I recently encountered: a funding body made a contractual agreement with a student that they had 5 years after completing their thesis to publish the results. After that, the data reverted to the funding agency. Seems like a reasonable deal on the surface, but I wonder what unintended consequences might ensue?

    • Hi Dave. Excellent comments, your perspective is greatly appreciated.

      I like the idea of a contractual time limit on publishing IP – it seems to provide an incentive for the holder to publish results and still allows the funding agency to do so should that fail. Seems like a good approach for moving forward, but what about existing unpublished dissertations? In this particular case, nobody can publish the new species as described – that would be plagiarism. On the other hand, redoing all of the studies and descriptions would be a complete waste of time when perfectly good work has already been done. It seems that situations like this effectively “lock out” the affected groups from any resolution – I guess until the IP holder dies? I can’t think of any study less attractive than going back and redoing some dead guy’s 50 year old thesis.

  3. Cool find. I love the dichotomy of one killer falling prey to the other. Mind you, green lynx spiders are a favorite of mine–beautiful, intriguing, docile, sneaky. The circle of eyes around the top of the head makes them expert hunters–always watching. They’re also common here, so it’s not difficult to find them lurking about the petals of a sunflower or playing statue on a morning glory waiting for food to arrive.

    It’s very interesting about the paper you mention and its impact on the identification of this group. It’s unfortunate the professor didn’t realize the importance of the piece and recommend to Szerlip that he pursue taking the research further than just coursework.

    I suspect there’s a lot of this out there in the world of science: good research and new knowledge hidden away because its value wasn’t recognized as anything more than a student’s homework.

    • Hi Jason – the irony of the predator becoming the prey was definitely compelling. It was only after I tried to ID the prey that an even more interesting story developed.

      We don’t have green lynx spiders up this way (at least, not that I’m aware of), so I always enjoy running into these guys during my forays to the south.

  4. Hi Ted

    Has anyone been able to contact Szerlip? If he’s dead, then all someone has to do is to photocopy the thesis and put it in a few more libaries and make it available as a pdf fle somewhere on the internet. This would conform to publication under the Code. Then we can all recognize Serlip for the hard and difficult work that he did and the stress and intellectual tortures he endured trying to write a thick book on an obscure subject! If he is still alive but doesnt want to do science anymore or to relive his memories perhaps, somebody could offer him/her coathor to allow the work to be published in journal form.

    As regards other authorities trying to grab the work it should remain the sole ownership of the person who did the work not the one who paid for it. So there!

    Best regards, Trevor

    • Hi Trevor,

      I still don’t think that would satisfy Section 8 criteria. Section 8.1.1 states that “it must be issued for the purpose of providing a public and permanent scientific record…”, and Section 8.1.2 states, “it must be obtainable, when first issued, free of charge or by purchase…” One copy of the dissertation in the Berkeley library and another in the department hardly seems public, and it’s hard for me to imagine how one would reconcile the almost 30 year difference between the date on the thesis and when it first became “obtainable.” Furthermore, Recommendation 8A states that authors “have a responsibility to ensure that new scientific names, nomenclatural acts, and information likely to affect nomenclature are made widely known.” Publication in appropriate scientific journals or “well-known” monographic series is clearly the desired method.

      Certainly an offer of co-authorship by someone interested in getting the names published seems appropriate – any takers? However, I think I’m assuming that Szerlip either has not been located or is uninterested in pursuing the issue further, a situation that seems not to be resolvable (until he dies, that is).

      I don’t see a contractual time limit as a “grab” – it’s more like, “well, if you don’t want it…” I’d like to see you convince my employer that they don’t own the IP I generate 🙂

  5. Trevor’s solution #2 is a better one, I think, than the former. Photocopies of an unpublished thesis may reach the bar of the letter of the law, but will never clear with the spirit of the law. Not in this modern age of electronic publishing, etc. And it is precisely for such reasons that most U.S. graduate programs with systematics degrees strongly discourage or even dis-allow the submission of a thesis with any new name that might somehow be construed as published. Better to contact Szerlip (if the thesis was 1980, he’s likely still alive) to suggest a co-authorship. I know a couple of people much closer to me and in my own experiences that are trying to find the way to publish a dissertation that contained many new names but was never completely published (I’ll not mention them here). Since I live in the vicinity of the institution where Szerlip did his degree, it is possible that someone in that department might know of him or how to contact him.

    • It seems to be a more common problem than I realized. I’ll let Daniel Swanson (who seems most involved with trying to find a solution to this particular case) know of your potential ability to help locate Szerlip should he want to try the co-authorship route.

  6. Let’s hear a big ‘Hooray’ for the Green Lynx.

    On the second issue, my Grandmother had an appropriate saying, “Now, that’s a fine kettle of fish!” I am not sure what it meant, but I always got the message. It was a mess.

  7. What an amazing photograph Ted! Birders have life lists…I also have one for insects. The lynx spider is on it. I would love the opportunity to see one of those fascinating and gorgeous spiders and be able to photograph it. The action shot of it feedings makes the picture that much more special.

    You are correct in stating that it is very unfortunate that the general insect enthusiast as well as entomologist will probably never have access to the information on that beautiful assassin bug. Shameful indeed! All that young man’s hard work for naught.

    • Thanks, Shelly. It’s not fair – birder’s only have to find 10,000 species to complete their life list – entomologists have to find 1.5 million (and counting).

      Just go south – green lynx spiders are quite common in the southern states, esp. during late summer.

  8. Hey Ted –

    Great to see this action shot. Don’t know if you saw my feature post on Peucetia viridans over on the Modern Naturalist? What a cool spider! Thanks for the info on the reduviid – interesting dilemma with that thesis…

    • Thank you, Matt. I did see that post – it actually reminded me that I had taken this photo. You did a nice enough job covering the spider, so I figured I’d focus on the prey instead and the irony of its predicament. When I learned about the conundrum regarding its identity, that was even more interesting. Funny how post ideas morph between conception and birth.

  9. Hi Ted,

    First, the picture is pretty amazing! Second, yes, it is very unfortunate that Szerlip’s dissertation was never published. In our lab we are on the way to fix that up. There is Masters student who is dealing with two species groups that include all of Szerlip’s names (in the US), where I am dealing with the rest of the fauna in Central and South America. Our student is revising the species’ concepts of Szerlip and adding a phylogenetic analysis to the two species groups. So, it is more than just validating the names. And for those who are interested: Szerlip is still alive, and in fact is going to be a coauthor of the students’ publication validating the names.

    If you want to be updated on how the research on the large genus Apiomerus is going please visit our website.

    • Hi Dimitri,

      First – thanks!

      Second – that is great news! I’m pleased to know that not only will the names be validated, but that Szerlip will retain coauthorship and the study will be bolstered by phylogenetic analysis – it’s about the best possible outcome I can imagine!

      I’ll let the people over at BugGuide know about the work your lab is doing. Thanks for providing the update!


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