How To: Be a Bad Zoologist
By Emma-Louise Nicholls, on 3 October 2013
Do you having any burning desires to have something explained by someone on the inside? This blog series is a How To Guide for the museological musings of a Museum Assistant. This edition will explain in detail…
How To: Be a Bad Zoologist
Put on your Dr Alan Grant hat and find your best palaeontological hammer and chisel. Go to some remote location rarely visited and poorly studied. Find a perfectly preserved fossil specimen that is a missing link, hugely important to mankind and that will in one rocky lump, answer a million questions that have been burning amongst the scientific community for decades. Dust it off, polish it up, put it on your mantlepiece, and don’t mention it to a soul. Or you could flog it to another private collector, just so long as it never sees the light of day, or the inquisitive eye of an expert.
Either dig up a fossil, or locate a living animal, that has already been discovered, formally described, and given a carefully chosen scientific name. Publish a new paper classifying the chosen animal as a new species, re-describe it, and give it a different name. Be careful not to make mention of any literature that references the original name so it will takes years for some eagle eyed researcher with niche knowledge of your animal to come along and discover your mischievous shenanigans. The famous fiasco caused by the naming of Apatosaurus as Brontosaurus for example, should give you some inspiration on this one.
If the last option is too much physical exertion, there is an armchair version. Go through some scientific journals until you find a species you like, though it’s best to pick one that’s not overly well known. Then go ahead and publish as many papers as you can on the animal, being careful to misspell the scientific name. If you publish enough papers, it will catch on and both spellings will become a requirement for any future literature search by other scientists, meaning everything will take twice as long from then on.
Name a new species whatever you like, and then give it either a confusing common name; such as the zebra shark that (apart from the stripey juveniles) are yellow with black spots, or give it a common name that already exists for a different species, for example the zebra shark Stegostoma is sometimes called the leopard shark (being yellow with black spots you can understand this association), though this is already the common name applied to the ‘actual’ leopard shark, the rather different Triakis semifasciata (also yellow with black spots, but completely unrelated to Stegostoma).
Finally, choose a species that only has one, or one really good specimen known to man. Then initiate a project that uses destructive sampling to destroy the specimen beyond all recognition, only to later realise that your research didn’t show anything, the files got erased from your computer and weren’t backed up, or there is actually better technology that would have given the scientific community a hundred times more data.
Emma-Louise Nicholls is the Museum Assistant at the Grant Museum of Zoology