It Came From The Wastebasket #01: Is This An Insectivore?

Most of the wastebasket taxa featured this month are completely extinct and known only from fossils, but to start things off let’s take a look at a major example of how even groups with living members could have their classification muddled up for centuries.

The name Insectivora first came into use in the early 1820s, and was used to refer to various “primitive-looking” small insect-eating mammals, with modern shrews, moles, hedgehogs, tenrecs, and golden moles as the original core members.

An illustration showing the animals that originally made up "Insectivora". From left to right it pictures a shrew, a tenrec, and a hedgehog on the top row, and a mole and a golden mole on the bottom row. Text at top of the the image reads "Insectivora".

Then over the next few decades solenodons, treeshrews, sengis, and colugos all got lumped in with them too.

By the early 20th century insectivorans were considered to represent the “primitive” ancestral stock that all other placental mammals had ultimately descended from, and any vaguely similar fossil species also got dumped under the label. Extinct groups like leptictids, cimolestans, adapisoriculids, and apatemyids all went into the increasingly bloated Insectivora, too, making the situation even more of a wastebasket as time went on.

An illustration showing the animals that made up the expanded historical version of "Insectivora". From left to right it pictures a leptictidan, a shrew, a tenrec, a hedgehog, and a sengi on the top row, an apatemyid, a mole, a golden mole, and a solenodon in the middle row, and a cimolestan, a colugo, and a treeshrew on the bottom row. Text at top of the the image reads "…Insectivora?", styled like a typewritten label that has been stuck over the previous image's text.

The problem was that the only characteristics that really united these various animals were very generic “early placental mammal” traits – small body size, five clawed digits on the hands and feet, relatively unspecialized teeth, and mostly-insectivorous diets – and attempts at making sense of their evolutionary relationships were increasingly convoluted.

An image of a diagram from a 1967 academic paper, showing a complicated attempt to figure out the evolutionary relationships of "insectivores", with many different group names linked by arrows. For comparison next to it is the "Pepe Silvia" conspiracy wall meme.
…They’re the same image.

(Image sources: &

The rise of cladistic methods from the 1970s onwards resulted in a lot of “insectivores” finally being recognized as unrelated to each other, removing them from the group and paring things back down closer to the name’s original definition. The idea that insectivorans were ancestral to all other placentals was abandoned, instead reclassifying them as being related to carnivorans, and the remaining members were recognized as just retaining a superficially “primitive” mammalian body plan.

Just shrews, moles, hedgehogs, solenodons, tenrecs, and golden moles were left, and to disassociate from the massive mess that had been Insectivora this version of the group was instead now called Lipotyphla.

An illustration showing the animals that made up "Lipotyphla". From left to right it pictures a solenodon, a tenrec, and a hedgehog on the top row, and a shrew, a mole, and a golden mole on the bottom row. Text at top of the the image reads "Lipotylpha", styled like an embossed label-maker sticker that has been stuck over the previous images' text.

But there were still no unique anatomical links between the remaining lipotyphlans. And then once genetic methods became available in the late 1990s, something unexpected happened.

Studies began to suggest that tenrecs and golden moles were actually part of a completely different lineage of placental mammals, the newly-recognized afrotheres, with their closest relatives being sengis and aardvarks. Meanwhile the rest of the lipotyphlans were laurasiatheres, closely related to bats, ungulates, and carnivorans.

Lipotyphla was suddenly split in half. For a while it was unclear if even the remaining shrew-mole-hedgehog-solenodon group was still valid – hedgehogs’ relationships were especially unstable in some studies – but by the mid-2000s things began to settle down into their current state.

Finally, after almost 200 years of confusion, the insectivore wastebasket has (hopefully) now been cleaned up. The remaining “true lipotyphlans” do seem to all be part of a single lineage, united by their genetics rather than by anatomical features, and are now known as Eulipotyphla.

A few fossil groups like nyctitheriids and amphilemurids are generally also still included, but since this classification is based just on their anatomy it isn’t entirely certain. The only exception to this are the nesophontids, which went extinct recently enough that we’ve actually recovered ancient DNA from them and confirmed they were eulipotyphlans closely related to solenodons.

An illustration showing the animals that now make up Euipotyphla. From left to right it pictures a solenodon, and a hedgehog on the top row, and a shrew, a mole, and an amphilemurid on the bottom row. Text at top of the the image reads "Eulipotylpha", with the letters "E" and "U" hastily scribbled onto the front of the previous image's text.

And a bonus image with species IDs:

Continue reading “It Came From The Wastebasket #01: Is This An Insectivore?”

It Came From The Wastebasket

Taxonomy – the naming, description, and classification of living things – is one of the foundations of biology and ecology. We need to know what things are in order to properly understand them and their evolutionary relationships, and without that we can’t build up an accurate picture of the true diversity of life on Earth.

Taxonomy of living species is also vital for conservation efforts, recognizing unique species that would otherwise go unnoticed. Accidentally using the same name for multiple things can easily mask the decline and potential extinction of critically endangered populations – for example, if we’d just assumed all Galápagos giant tortoises were exactly the same we’d never have realized that Lonesome George was the last known individual of the Pinta Island subspecies, or made efforts to find living hybrid descendants of his kind.

Meanwhile the paleontological taxonomy of fossils helps us to understand where things came from, and to identify long-term trends of evolution, diversity, and extinction over time. The history of life shows us how different types of organisms coped with changing conditions in the past, so we can try to predict how current climate change will affect the biosphere in the present and future.

But sometimes species don’t neatly fit into our classification system. Maybe they’re rather “generic” or “primitive” examples of that type of organism and don’t really have many unique or specialized features, or maybe the scientists describing them just weren’t able to classify them more specifically at the time, but either way they often end up with the same fate: dumped into a wastebasket taxon.

A pencil sketch of a wire mesh waste-paper basket, tipped over on its side with crumpled pieces of paper spilling out. A whale's tail and a trilobite are poking out of the trash, while a bird-like feathered dinosaur and a shrew-like mammal peer around the sides of the toppled basket.

Wastebaskets aren’t natural lineages, just a default label for things that don’t seem to fit anywhere else, and they’re basically somebody else’s problem to sort out later. Sometimes they can even end up containing things that superficially look very similar to each other but later turn out to not even be closely related at all.

This can be especially bad in paleontology, where there’s often only poorly-preserved and fragmentary fossils to work with and usually no way to verify evolutionary relationships with modern genetic analysis. This can result in wastebaskets getting especially bad if left unchecked – like how for a while in the 19th and 20th centuries many fragmentary theropod dinosaurs were just dumped into Megalosaurus, resulting in over 50 dubious species that eventually needed to be carefully reevaluated, renamed, and reclassified.

Every weekday this October we’ll be looking at a different example of these sort of taxonomic tangles – so I’ll see you all on Monday with one the worst historical wastebaskets…