Dipterist Keith Bayless exposes a pernicious case of media bias:
Six new families of Diptera were described from newly discovered species in the last 6 years! None of these flies received the press coverage given to Martialis. There are a variety of explanations for this, including that
1) The fly descriptions were published in lower profile journals than PNAS
2) Many of the the new fly families evolved more recently than the first ant in the Martialis lineage
3) The level of public and scientific interest in ants inclines them to be better covered or
4) People who study ants are better at public relations.
I think Keith misses an even larger issue. For most people, the Linnean category of “family” doesn’t mean anything. Joe Public has no reason to know that all ants are classified as a family while all flies are an order containing many families. Instead, people tend to shoehorn nature into a set of basic types of organisms. These types match, more or less, the set of heavily used common names. As any taxonomist knows, the correspondence between the public’s conception of basic types does not have to correspond to any particular taxonomic rank. Cockroaches (Blattaria) are an entire order; Mosquitoes (Culicidae) are a family; Cows (Bos taurus) are a species.
Hence, “ants” are seen as a basic kind of organism, so are “flies”, and “squirrels”, and “squid” and so forth. As an aside, the innate ability of the human brain to simplify nature into arbitrary categories is a major reason-if not the major reason- for the persistent appeal of creationism. But I digress.
The consequence is that a newly discovered sister lineage to a basic “kind” of organism- an ant- will generate more buzz than the announcement of new lineages buried deep within another basic “kind” or organism- a fly.
Now, I happen to think this is an asinine way to approach biodiversity. But no one put me in charge of designing human cognition, and I can’t fault the vast majority of the human population that doesn’t spend much time thinking about insects for taking mental shortcuts.
A second factor is the ease with which ants are anthropomorphized. While the actual parallels between ant societies and human societies are weak, the fact remains that ants live in groups bearing some superficial resemblance to the way we live. We relate to ants more easily than to flies. So Hollywood makes movies about ants. About flies, not so much. And papers touting a new ant lineage make PNAS. That’s why I think Keith’s #3 should top the list, and points 1 and 4 are mere correlates. In the end, Dipterists face a much steeper uphill battle for popular recognition than we myrmecologists.
It should go without saying that this is deeply unfair to Dipterists, whose subjects really are one of life’s most fantastic productions. But hey, it could be worse. Think of the poor Psocopterists.