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Statistics Hacks by Bruce Frey

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Hack #71. Discover a New Species

While everyday entire species of creatures become extinct, occasionally new species are identified that were previously unknown. Surprisingly, statistical tools, not biological tools, can do the trick.

A few years back, a new species, a type of possum, was identified. The new species was named trichosurus cunninghamii. Trichosurus means, um...possum (I guess), and the cunninghamii part refers to its discoverer, Ross Cunningham, a statistician at Australian National University. If you'd like to have a species named for you, here's how statistics can help.

Identifying Species with Statistics

There is a family of statistical analyses that looks at a bunch of variables and finds naturally occurring groupings among them. Typically, the groupings or clusters of variables are identified on the basis of the correlations among them [Hack #11].

One procedure that uses this strategy attempts to find underlying dimensions or invisible, giant basic variables that account for a bunch of less important variables. This procedure is factor analysis, and elsewhere we see how it can, among other things, be used to identify writers' styles [Hack #65].

Statistics is full of similar techniques that can identify dimensions, underlying causes, and groupings. The goal of identifying groupings is of greatest use to biologically inclined statisticians who wish to identify new species.

For some group of animals to technically be a separate species, it must share a unique set of ...

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