If you work on Anolis lizards, there’s a good chance you’ve been asked about the recent rediscovery of the long-thought-to-be-extinct “Pinocchio Anole” within the last week. As Anole Annals reported on October 7, this story has hit the big time. After being featured on the Huffington Post, the tale of this rediscovery went viral, receiving extensive news coverage worldwide.
The catch, as most Anole Annals readers are doubtless aware, is that the Pinocchio Anole wasn’t just recently rediscovered. It was rediscovered in 2005, and has since been the subject of field studies resulting in no fewer than five published works (six if you count “Finding Anolis proboscis,” Steve Poe’s 2010 Anolis Newsletter article about finding Anolis proboscis).
What gives? How can the central claim of such a major scientific news item be fundamentally incorrect?
I propose the following hypothesis: This story evolved to its current state by good old-fashioned natural selection. I think that an initially accurate web story was repeatedly and imperfectly replicated, and that as the story was picked up by increasingly larger news outlets, important details were lost or altered during transcription (perhaps selectively, since discovery makes good copy), resulting in the evolution of an incorrect news item.
If I have things right (it’s possible I don’t know all the details), the story started with an informational advertisement from the ecotourism company Destination Ecuador.
If you read that article, it’s pretty accurate with the potential exception of a single use of the word “re-discovery” to describe the event during which the Tropical Herping team found Anolis proboscis. The use of that word is admittedly a little strange and perhaps a bit unwise, but the article makes it very clear that the actual rediscovery of the species took place in 2005, and describes a successful scientific expedition to study the species in the wild in 2010. To me the point of this article is “with our ecotourism company, you can have a chance to travel with experts to see a weird, rare, recently-rediscovered lizard species.”
Next comes an article by Douglas Main on livescience.com, which appears to be the original source of the viral news item. If you read the LiveScience article, it’s worded in a way that tells a narrative of very recent rediscovery (which is not really true) without ever explicitly stating it.
For example, it says A. proboscis “was thought to be extinct for 50 years, but has been rediscovered in the cloud forests of Ecuador.” This implies, but doesn’t explicitly state, that the discovery was very recent. Main is wrong on a technical detail (the period of time it was thought to be extinct is maximally 39 years rather than 50), but it’s pretty likely that’s an unintentional error, and that Main didn’t know the species had been collected in 1966.
Main then goes on to describe how the Tropical Herping team searched for years to find the thing, but doesn’t bother to point out that many others had already found (and studied!) the species until later in the article, with the following comment: “This is only the third time scientists have spotted it since 2005, Arteaga added.” In my opinion, Main’s LiveScience article is slightly misleading, but not outright false news.
I think things became explicitly misleading when Douglas Main’s LiveScience article was republished under a different title on the Huffington Post. As far as I can tell the LiveScience and HuffPo articles are identical, but compare the titles:
While the LiveScience title doesn’t really tell the full straight story, it’s also not blatantly false – I can think of several benign interpretations of that title. For example, “lizard once thought extinct is the breakout star in a stunning new book on Ecuador herps.”
But the HuffPo title is just wrong, which I think makes for a more misleading piece of news, even though the article itself mentions that A. proboscis was located in 2005 and seen several times since. Additional stories deriving from the HuffPo piece (including the HuffPo video) managed to leave such critical details out entirely, leading to the viral spread of an incorrect news story (note that there’s a good bit of variation in the accuracy of the published stories, but the majority of the headlines are factually incorrect). On the one hand, all this news has gotten a lot of people excited about anoles, which is great. On the other, it’s puzzled a lot of folks who had already heard about the rediscovery of Anolis proboscis (we haven’t exactly been quiet about this species over the last few years).
In any case, none of this should detract from the fact that the rediscovery of this species is fantastic news (regardless of when it happened), nor from the fact that the Tropical Herping team has put together a truly superb book on Mindo’s reptiles and amphibians (it looks fantastic, and I’m certainly looking forward to getting my copy!). But I think it does show how seemingly minor changes in the presentation of a story can fundamentally change its meaning as it works through a news cycle.