Last week, The New York Times put out an article (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/10/science/10ugly.html?_r=3&pagewanted=1&adxnnl=1&ref=science&adxnnlx=1282248042-5tCVNTotvLF8XDJwZMbr1g&) on animal ugliness — how it affects which animals we like, which we have as pets, and ultimately which animals we spend most of our time studying.
Though the article does a good job of pointing out that cute animals get more than their fair share of study, the article itself only mentions conspicuous organisms. As Biodiversity Institute research assistant Kendra Koch points out:
"From my point of view the inconspicuous and less 'palatable' organisms are often simply ignored or at least shied away from. Parasites of course seem to have a special cringe factor. Even this article on ugly creatures focuses on mammals and vertebrates with no mention of the bulk of animal diversity, let alone any of the other kingdoms."
Animals are far outnumbered by other kingdoms in regard to number of individuals, and if the under-studied insects weren't included (insects are animals!), they would be dwarfed in species count, as well. An in-the-flesh example of this diversity is shown in our museum's BugTown exhibit.
Koch is a Research Assistant for Parasitology, a field of study still making sense of a huge diversity, the extent to which is unknown. New parasites are found every year, and it is estimated that there may be twice as many undiscovered species as known species.
"Nearly every time I explain what I do to someone who asks, the response is similar," says Koch. "A surprised and sometimes disgusted look accompanied by the question, 'why does studying elasmobranch tapeworms matter?' All living things (even parasites) are part of a greater system that has evolved toward some balance and ideally have an equal right to be conserved."
The natural world is always more complex than we think. Ugly critters have something going for them, as well — they're ugly. While we're worrying about the cute ones, or even the ugly ones, the worst off are the unnoticed.
Caroline Chaboo, Riley Wertenberger (KU undergraduate), and Josh Cunningham (Haskell U. undergraduate) led an outdoor insect discovery class for the Stepping Stones, Inc. school, Lawrence KS, on June 7, 2012. Fourteen 7-10 year old school kids and their two teachers were armed with insect nets and large vials and shown how to net and sweep sample insects in the Rockefeller Prairie, KU Field Station. The kids were excited to catch, study, and release a wide variety of live insects and learn a little about the prairie ecosystem.
What an exciting day to participate in the installation of specimens and other objects in the upcoming exhibition, "39 Trails: Research in the Peruvian Amazon", curated by Dr. Stephen Goddard of the KU Spencer Art Museum. The 2011 field course in Madre de Dios, Peru, has been so rewarding in research, publications, and specimens. And now an insect-themed exhibition....in an ART museum!
Dr. Goddard and the exhibition designer, Richard Klocke, are putting finishing touches in the small display cases, closing up completed cases, and preparing the final labels and clean up. Apart from materials of individual researchers, we placed three drawers of insect specimens on display.
Richards' exclamations over these specimens were a reward in itself: for the sheer beauty of bugs and also for our hard work on diversity research in Peru.
When a chief of police contacts you about insects and dead bodies, a good entomologist hopes that her skills are badly needed to solve the crime of the century…that the insects found on the body are clues to the time and place of death. One of the critical roles of insects in any ecosystem is to break down dead bodies, and this is what they naturally do with any carcass. The first handbook for coroners was written by Song Ci in 13th century China; since then, this field has become professionalized and there is even a North American Forensic Entomology Association. One CSI team member is a forensic entomologist and a real life expert is a consultant for the series (us bug people are hyper-alert to these parts the show!). But back to my police chief. He sent me some photos and sure enough, a carcass….of a dead bird in western Pennsylvania. Riddled with lovely beetles doing their thing: eating it up!
These were Nicrophorus of the family Silphidae, but the species identification would require close examination of the the orange pattern on the elytra (hind wings). They were not Nicrophorus americanus, which is commonly called the endangered burying beetle as it is found in less than 10% of its historic range of distribution. Nicrophorus beetles show an unusual behavior of elaborate parental care: the carcass becomes the site of courtship, and the male and female bury the carcass so they and their offspring can feed. Aren’t insects bizarre and wonderful?
Curious children often observe scientists such as my collaborator, Mauricio Garcia, whenever we're collecting insects
Mauricio, Jesus and I scouted a few new field sites today in the Serrania de Perija- the mountainous border region that forms the western boarder with Colombia. Just a few hours from the relatively affluent oil city that is Maracaibo, the roads gradually narrow into small dirt paths winding around large rural haciendas (ranches) and indigenous communities. Cars give way to burrows and horses as the primary (and functional) means of transport.
Today is a big day: reviewing the available established plant plots in the area, relocating their markers (boundaries of edges and internal sub-quadrats), selecting a plot we will follow in the next few years, and setting up several kinds of traps to capture insects. One of the reasons arthropods are so diverse is because they divide any habitat into 1000s of microhabitats, with many insects specializing on particular aspects — flower feeders, seed drillers, stem and leaf miners, soil arthropods, root feeders, parasites, parasitoids, predators….an insect specialist must have an array of tools if they want to sample that ecological diversity.
Selecting the first one-half plot was a piece of cake but locating the internal markers was not so easy. There had been several fallen trees in recent years, and these gaps in the canopy create particular kinds of habitat for sun-loving plants and their arthropod associates. Walking around on foot is not so easy. We kept losing sight of each other, even though I was using florescent orange tape to mark our path.
After a sweaty but productive few hours, we had laid down malaise traps, flight intercept traps, colorful pan traps, and pitfall traps. Each one would sub-sample a slightly different group of forest arthropods. As all these traps were on the forest floor, we would not be sampling the canopy fauna so well this time but next year we will have canopy foggers and other canopy traps.
For some insects, you have to look for them during their most active part of the day. Arthropods may be most active during the day, at dawn and dusk (crepuscular) or at nights. So night walks are necessary for some species.