In 2007 I was working on a molecular phylogeny for pest species of the genus Tribolium. Phylogenetics is a set of methods for using information about organisms, like DNA sequences, to decide who is more closely related to whom. In principle, phylogenetic methods can be very simple. If organisms share more of some same state for certain characters, for example the same nucleotide base at a certain position in the DNA sequence, then they should be more closely related than a third who does not have those things in common. However, it can get complicated quickly. Which characters or genes do you compare? How do you account for the fact that multiple mutations at the same DNA position can make two mutations look like one? Or that a mutation back to the original state is undetectable? For that matter, how do you decide what the “same” positions are in DNA from different organisms? — Maybe I’ll revisit this topic here in the future.
Naming things can be a pain. I finally decided to start a website to discuss the research and teaching, and I’m left with the annoying problem of what to call it. “The Angelini Lab Website” seemed far too boring. Besides, this will hopefully also be a place to discuss topics I’m teaching, or just highlight interesting biology news.
Anyway, for a while it looked like one species, Tribolium brevicornis, wasn’t closely related to other members of that genus. We were faced with the exciting possibility of suggesting a split of the genus. To make it more interesting, this species had originally been described as a member of another genus Aphanotus, which was later subsumed into the genus Tribolium. Aphanotus was a named, but empty genus. In taxonomic terms this genus is “available”. If we were right, Aphanotus brevicornis would again be the name. Since other species had since been added to the subgenus brevicornis, this would effectively resurrect the abandoned names of two species, and add new combinations for five more.
As it turns out, when we completed all the analyses, there wasn’t sufficient support to merit the formal taxonomic change. So, Tribolium brevicornis remains, and the genus Aphanotus remains unoccupied.
With more than 350,000 species of beetles on earth, I am amazed that I had a bursh with a beetle genus that doesn’t exist. So, I’ll take the name for this site. At least then, something can occupy that name.