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Tag: research

When elbows are used in the world of science

I was part as acarologist and natural scientist in a 2011 scientific paper about a mite preserved as fossil in amber, which was analyzed using the X-ray computed tomography and determined systematically on a family level. In this time, this scientific publication had a remarkable impact in international scientific media, because it seemed, as if this mite was the smallest animal ever visualized via CT on a high quality level.


Strange behaviors of so called „colleagues“?


The technical work was performed by technical scientists in Manchester UK. The natural scientific analyses was performed by me as the only European specialist for the mite family Histiostomatidae. But I noticed already in the time period of  this publication that there were strict tendencies by the so called „colleagues“ to mention my name as less as possible, this concerned the drafting of international media releases and also a poster presentation (my name was added days later) and an online abstract on a conference in Berlin. The corresponding poster was even awarded, but I got my award certification only after demanding explicitly for it. I much later, when I decided to complain officially at the Museum of Natural Sciences in Berlin, needed to learn that I was not even considered as one of the first authors. I didn’t notice that before, because the former „colleague“, Dr. Jason Dunlop, curator at this museum, was mentioned in the original citation with 1) after his name, me too. Thus I interpreted this as a double-first-author-ship. It then came out that the „1)“ only indicated the same scientific address, because I was in that time officially a volunteer at the MFN in Berlin.


Mite in an amber fossil, made visible by using the x-ray computed tomography, acarological work: Stefan F. Wirth


The work of a scientific specialist: here an acarologist


The question must be: Who is needed to scientifically interpret three dimensional photos of an amber fossil, in this case the deutonymph of a mite of the Histiostomatidae? A specialist for this taxon is needed, who is able to perform scientific drawings, based on the photos. He first needs even to decide, which of the photos are showing details of scientific relevance. While drawing, the specialist must distinctly recognize single microscopic structures, so that all these structures can be clearly separated from each other including all borders or gaps between single components. The scientific term is „homologisation“. Homologisation means: comparing single structures with (phylogenetically) equivalent structures of other (related) species. As there were not more fossils available, the homologisations needed to be based on recent mites. Thus the specialist must have a very competent knowledge of a high number of species from this family. To reach that level requires hard work over many years. I had the necessary level and found character details in the fossil, which were fitting to recent members of mites of the Histiostomatidae. But it’s of course not enough to discover such homologous structures. They must be made visible for every reader of the scientific paper. Thus the drawings need to be correctly labelled, which requires careful morphological studies. Then a detailed description needs to be written. But that is far not enough. Readers of a scientific paper are usually no specialists. That’s why they need a written introduction, in which the summary of the general recent knowledge of a mite group needs to be presented. And after all that they even expect you to discuss your results. It’s an own chapter, subsequent to the result descriptions.

The discussion chapter also requires a maximum of specialized competence. Some researchers even say that this is the first part of a paper that they read as it puts the results into a general scientific context based on arguments, mostly according to the principle of the most economical explication. Conclusions in the discussion part have usually the character of theories based on the facts, which the paper could contribute. Topics of a discussion part in such a paper as ours are systematic conclusions, the discussing of homologisation problems and also the formulation of a possible relevance for the recent scientific knowledge and also the future scientific importance of these new findings.

This all is, what I as a specialist needed to do. I additionally contributed one of my photos of a recent mite for comparative reasons and captured a stereomicroscopic photo of the mite fossil to demonstrate, how much the CT could improve the visible details of the amber fossil. I guess I did quite a lot, the other part was overtaken by the technical colleagues in Manchester. They needed to explain their technical situation and also needed to discuss their ideas about the meaning of their CT-technology for the future of science, focussed also on work with amber fossils.


Contributions of different authors to a scientific paper


To be honest I don’t remember, where there was still space left for content issue contributions by Dr. Dunlop. But he did some organizational stuff, he collected the contributions from the UK colleagues and me, he arranged the photo table via a graphic software based on the photos, which I had determined as scientifically relevant, and he was the so called corresponding author (I allowed him, because he is an English native speaker). That means, he submitted the final paper to the journal and communicated with the editors. Of course reviewers always ask for revisions. That was then mine and the technicians job again.

It is common that corresponding authors represent automatically the first authors of a paper. But it is not mandatory. I for example once was the corresponding author of a paper, which was based on a bachelor thesis that I (in major parts) supervised. I despite of my in fact major authorship regarding the scientific paper itself and my additional corresponding activities let her (the student) the first authorship. That even means that this paper can be easier found, when searching for her instead of my name. I just wanted to support a younger scientist.

And of course also a double first-authorship might be possible, especially representing  an adequate solution, in case another author even contributed more concerning the scientific content itself. In case of objections by the editors, the one, who contributed more, should to be the first author.




But to come back to the amber paper of this article, it is surely not fair to reduce the scientist, who had the major scientific work on a paper secretly to a second author. It is highly unfair to leave him out in the international press release information. And I don’t trust to say here, what it is, when deleting his name entirely from a poster and an online abstract presentation and even impeding him to get a certification of a poster award in time for his work. Should one use the „b-word“? Generally bullying would be an act against the good scientific practice, but there would be clear proofs for malevolence against specifically somebody needed to get corresponding behaviors sanctioned. But when „only“ the elbow mentality is obvious, which means that people leave somebody out for their own better recognition, then the distinct malevolence against the victim is not clearly proven. Thus the interesting question arises: when is elbow behavior equal to bullying and when not?


Warning to young scientists


What I can say for sure is, even when the original bullying assumption is still a kind of questionable: after you complained, you might need to expect a real merciless and long lasting bullying. That’s why I intend to warn all young scientists: be careful and double check, with whom you cooperate. The wrong choice can be a failure as long as you do not agree being a bullying victim. The consequences can last over years and can destroy your whole career. I even once was told by a bullying victim that the accused institution did not even deny its bullying activities, but stated that depending of the kind of position, somebody has in an institute, an equality right would not be automatically existent. I go further and say: don’t become a natural scientist at all, except you are in a love relationship with an internationally highly influential professor.

In these days there are alternatives for possible natural scientists. Earlier I was a harsh critic of the modern gender sciences (sometimes also named genderism). But they have much financial capacities. Nobody there needs to sharpen his elbows, a good basis for fair careers, and based on that after a while surely also the most important basis for a good quality work!


Copyrights Stefan F. Wirth, Berlin 2019


Male and female of Histiostoma sachsi and unsuccessful mating with a „stranger“

Mites of the Acariformes vary in very different forms and life-strategies. One taxon of very tiny and soft-skinned mites is named Astigmata. Within them the familiy Histiostomatidae is especially rich of species, most of them surely not yet described or discovered.


Modyfied mouthparts and a specific mode of dispersal


These mites feed on microorganisms using a complex mouthpart-apparatus with multifunctional abilities. They can be found in habitats, which dry out quickly. When it’s getting too dry, a specific instar of the mites takes a ride on insects or other bigger arthropods for dispersal to a new and fresh habitat ( strategy called Phoresy).

Histiostoma sachsi is one of numerous (often closely related) long haired (in females) species. It was originally in 1957 described from cattle-dung. I found it in compost.


Long upper-setation in females and tactile camouflage (mimesis)


Adult females are characterized by a long setation on their uppersides. They use them to hold parts of the old nymphal cuticle and soil particles on their backs. This seems to be due to a strategy named mimesis or camouflage. It’s a tactile camouflage as an optical sense in this kind of microhabitats plays almost no role.


Normal and unusual copulation position, trial of an interspecific copulation


Males mate their females via a dorsal copulation opening and thus need to ride on them. In H. sachsi, that copulation opening is located very close to the hind-edge of the body. That way it is even despite of the camouflage cover accessible. It seems even slightly being elevated out of the body surface in order to surmount adjacent soil particles. This is an adaptation of this particular species. It might share such morphological characters only with very closely related (not yet described) species In other members of genus Histiostoma, the copulation opening is usually more centered related to the hind body.

The copulation position requires that males insert their aedeagus („penis“) into the copulation opening. They additionally use their legs to grasp into the females body. That kind of leg arrangement and thus the whole copulation position can differ from species to species.

This is why copulations between members of different species already fail, because the right copulation setting does not fit, nor does the shape of the aedeagous. Nevertheless the phenomenon of unsuccessful trials for interspecific copulations can sometimes be observed in laboratory cultures. Such a trial is also visible in this video, where a male of Histiostoma feroniarum (also appears in my compost samples regularly) tries to mate a female of H. sachsi. It cannot even almost get in a proper copulation position and seems to hold on to the dorsal camouflage cover of the female. it could only remain in a transverse position related to the female body and thus not get access to the copulation opening, normal would be a longitudinal position with the sameame orientation of female and male.

Adult mites of the family Histiostomatidae (Astigmata) and a „false“ copulation. Copyrights Stefan F. Wirth, Berlin December 2018. Please like my video also at Youtube, in case you like it.


Chemical communication and chemo-sensitive leg setation


Mites of the Astigmata communicate and find their general orientation due to chemo-sensitive setae, mostly on legs I and II, which are named solenidia. They are even on the magnification level of my footage well visible on the male’s legs. Although a direct body contact is not necessary for a innerspecific communication by chemically interpreting scents produced from mite glands, the observed male in my video repeatedly was seeking for intense body-contacts and obviously „observed“ his conspecific while doing so with its first two legs. This might have intensified the perception of pheromones.

It showed this behavior also, when passing by the „false copulation-pair“ described above. It additionally seemed to invest power in its leg movements as if it would try to remove the „competitor“ on the female, in this case even belonging to another species.


Competitive fights between males


That mites of the Histiostomatidae can use their strongly sclerotized first legs to fight under each other for an access to a female is known to me from my older observations about the species Histiostoma palustre and Histiostoma feroniarum.


Origin of the compost samples


The compost samples were collected in SW-Germany (Saarland in October 2018). The footage was recorded in December 2018 in Berlin.


Berlin December 2018, copyrights Stefan F. Wirth

Habitat compost: Mite Histiostoma sachsi carries old cuticle and dirt as camouflage

My parents have a compost area in their backyards. I use it as reference habitat for two mite species of the family Histiostomatidae (Astigmata): Since I began my research in 2000, the compost regularly contained Histiostoma feroniarum with its typical male dimorphism. Since summer 2017 another species appears additionally regularly: Histiostoma sachsi. Both species do not appear under the same conditions. While H. feroniarum prefers fresher decaying material, H. sachsi on visibly older decomposed tissue. There mite be even more mites of the Histiostomatidae exist in this complex compost habitat, but under my laboratory conditions, only the two named species were so far successfully reared out of samles always again. Regarding the determination of H. sachsi on a species level, I was more careful in my comments to a former video (June 17), in which I named it Histiostoma cf. sachsi due to doubts about a correct identification. Meanwhile, also due to the morphology of the deutonymph, I determine „my“ compost mite as Histiostoma sachsi Scheucher, 1957. But it is still to emphasize that Scheucher described H. sachsi from cattle dung, not from compost. But generally, both habitats can sometimes share the same inhabitants.


Adult females carry their old cuticles and „dirt“ on their backs as tactile comouflage


Biologically conspicuous is darkish material, which especially adult females carry on their backs. Unlike males, females posses elongated setae on their backsides. These setae support the holding of material such as old cuticle and soil particles. In slide preparations, this cover usually appears amorphic and contains substrate from the mite’s environment. My video footage indicates that the basis of this cover is a retained old cuticle from the former nymphal instar . That this cannot easily be proven with the light microscope is due to the very soft and fine character of the cuticles in these mites. Remnants might become decomposed by microorganisms after a while.

Compost: the habitat of the mite Histiostoma sachsi Scheucher, 1957 (Acariformes, Astigmata, Histiostomatidae). Copyrights Stefan F. Wirth, please like my video also on youtube, in case you like it.


The phoretic dispersal instar, named deutonymph, in mites of the Astigmata controls its body position due to sticky leg endings and suckers on their undersides


Deutonymphs of H. sachsi represent one of my resent models to study mite-dispersal behavior. My research focus since a while concerns ultrastructure and function morphology of the deutonympal suckerplates and other structures to attach to insects for dispersal (this dispersal strategy is called phoresie). The anterior front-suckers on the suckerplate of the mite’s underside is extendable and very flexible, not only to find a suitable position on the insect carrier. When falling, the deutonymphs use it to lift their bodies up into a proper position again. Additionally they will try to get hold using „sticky“ lobe-shaped setae on the endings of legs I and II. Both is visible in my footage. The forelegs seem generally to make the first contact, when trying to get on a suitable carrier.


Deutonymphs of Histiostoma sachsi take a ride on other mites (Oribatida)


The suitable carrier of H. sachsi is unknown to me. Some astigmatid species have even a range of carrier-„hosts“. In my samples, deutonymphs at least attach to other mites, especially to mites of the Oribatida. This is in a very short scene visible in my video too.


Copyrights Stefan F. Wirth, Berlin December 2018