Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Walking sharks and Papuan playmates (by Andrew Madden)

This is a discovery I heard about last year, and even then it was four years old so it's not exactly new.  However, I was intrigued to learn of a "new" species of walking shark off the Bird's Head Peninsula on West Papua.  See Nature (one third of the way down the page, between the jelly rocket and the Komodo dragon.  If you find the world's smallest fish you've gone too far).  You can also see a short clip of the shark "walking" (before the diver switches attention to rays).

As someone with a background in biology, I always like to hear about strange organisms behaving in strange ways.  However, what I found particularly interesting in this case, was the way in which I came to learn about the discovery. 

I was talking to someone from West Papua at the time and mentioned that I was fascinated by the island's wildlife.  He told me that he had just heard about an expedition that had generated a lot of excitement in the scientific community by announcing the discovery of several new species, including the walking shark.  He laughed and told me that this creature, which had created so much interest amongst scientists, was one that he had played with as a child.

I suppose it's fortunate that none of the scientists who announced their exciting discovery was around at the time.  It must be thrilling to feel that you've revealed something to the world, but rather less thrilling to learn that generations of children were playing with your discovery before you were born. 

Mary Midgely, the philosopher of science, once noted that
"The astonishing successes of Western science have not been gained by answering every kind of question, but precisely by refusing to. Science has deliberately set narrow limits to the kinds of questions that belong to it, and further limits to the questions peculiar to each branch. It has practised an austere modesty..."
("Can Science Save its Soul?" New Scientist.  Issue 1832, 24-25).

While it's sad that Nature should use the standard journalistic shorthand of "new species" rather than "species new to science", I was relieved to see that the journal in which the findings were published did display appropriate modesty.  Allen & Erdmann (2009) "Reef fishes of the Bird’s Head Peninsula, West Papua, Indonesia" Check List 5(3): 587–628, 2009 refer to records of species "previously unpublished in the peer-reviewed literature", and discuss the species "endemic status."

In other words, they are modest enough in their claims not to implicitly dismiss the experiences of all the Papuan children who had played with walking sharks on the sea bed.

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