It’s not news that you can discover a lot of stuff on Flickr, if you have safe search turned off and you sort photos by “interestingness.” (Seriously, try it sometime.) But this has to be the first time the photo-sharing site has contributed to finding a new species. Entomologist Shaun Winterton spied this picture of an unfamiliar variety of lacewing on Flickr in May 2011, and a year later it was confirmed as being a never-classified species of insect.
Winterton was pretty sure, when he first saw Guek Hock Ping’s Flickr stream, that the bug in the photo looked different from any lacewing he’d ever studied. He contacted Guek, but the photographer hadn’t captured the insect when he took its portrait in Malaysia. Why would he? As far as he knew, it was just a beautiful bug.
A year later, though, Guek went back to the spot where he’d taken the photo, and found another lacewing with the same distinctive blotchy pattern. This time, he kept it. With the help of Guek’s specimen, it was possible to confirm what Winterton had suspected: This insect had never before been described by science. (It did turn out that there was another specimen on file at the Natural History Museum in London, but nobody had classified it, probably because classifying museum specimens is a much less effective goofing-off technique than browsing Flickr.)
Winterton and Guek both contributed to the paper announcing Semachrysa jade (named after Winterton’s daughter) to the world. Naturally, they collaborated from different continents using GoogleDocs, because the moral of this story is basically “you never have to leave your house because the internet.” When scientists publish about the first gene identified on Facebook or the first dark matter discovered via Grindr, they’ll probably collaborate remotely, too.