Natural history in the digital age

Graeme Cocks has been my mentor in entomology since I started taking more than a casual interest in the small creatures which share our lives. Last week he told us about an incident which beautifully illustrates the power of shared knowledge:

There was a ship at anchor 1 mile off Dampier, WA, yesterday, the Mermaid Vantage. One of the crew found a large insect on board and, concerned about quarantine, the ship’s Master sent a picture of it off to the ship’s agent in Perth.

The agent happened to have a Dad who knew a bit about insects, so he sent the picture to me. I recognised it and also happened to have the right book in my library, on water bugs. So within about half an hour the ship had a name, Lethocerus distinctifemur, and a long waffle about the insect’s habits and distribution. Pretty cool.

As he says, pretty cool. But it gets better: just as easily, I can share with you his photos of the bug, a much more dramatic photo and description from someone I’ve never heard of before, and an overview of the insect’s family from Wikipedia:

Lethocerus is a genus of the hemipteran family Belostomatidae, known colloquially as giant water bugs, distributed throughout the tropical, subtropical and temperate areas of the world. The greatest diversity of species occurs in the Americas. It includes the largest true bugs with species reaching a length of over 11 centimetres.

I can easily go further and show you where museum specimens of the bug have been collected (see EoL) but that is not really the point. The point is that we have access to far more information, far more easily, than any previous generation. We should enjoy it (I know I do!) and make good use of it.