Bug Work and The Plight of the Natural Historian

Project of the day, I’ve been compiling a list of helpful and informative resources on riparian insects and collection. You see, I’m new to riparian insects. This is one of the many reasons why I love where I work and what I do; I’m constantly learning new and interesting things about the natural world around me.

During my hiatus, I’ve been doing my homework, reading journal articles and textbooks, comparing sampling methods and browsing identification guides and keys. This may not be of immediate help during the field season, where the focus of the moment will be collecting samples efficiently in a standardized manner along the defined gradients. Field work can seem chaotic at times; there is a lot to do in short periods of time. Often it is strictly dependent on the weather, or in the case of riparian zones, dependent on flooding, and in the case of insects, dependent on temperature. Those factors complicate matters further when the target periodicity for collection at each site is every 10-14 days. In some cases null data will have no choice but to be the data, if pit-fall traps are under several inches of water or if the temperature drops too low there will be no insects collected or recorded. With sampling due to begin mid-April, this trend in cold weather does not bode well for bountiful collecting.

The preparation will aid me once I’m in the lab. Sorting and preparing the different species. As a non-specialist, my primary objective will be to organize the samples based on ‘morphospecies,’ or those that appear to the naked eye to be most similar. This is not an easy task. I now have a few years of experience of learning to define just how much variation can mean the difference between species, but that’s only the tiniest tip of the iceberg above water. This is something that takes a lifetime to understand and master. There are literally dozens of species concepts to contend with, one needs only to open a general biology text to get a feel for the conflicting approaches to defining a species.

The sorted batches will then be handed over to the specialists, they will single out a few of each species and will then be returned to me for continued sorting of the masses for occurence data and data-basing. This information will later be combined with other environmental data (i.e. plants, other biota…) and concurrent or previous studies for determining whether the presence or absence of certain species are significant and what they can tell us about the health of their environment.

This particular sorting task of mine is complicated by what is referred to as the ‘morphospecies concept.’ That is when what appears to be distinct morphological species at the local level are merely one in a series of morphologically intergrading populations on a broader geographic scale. Yes geographic variation exists for individual species; some have variation among populations that are staggering with huge differences in color and patterning, not to mention sexually dimorphic species. But more frequently, even the most subtle difference, which may not be externally visible or even be a gene, is what differentiates one species from another, their reproductive compatibility. A common characteristic used in almost every key for identifying an insect, is a careful dissection and description of the genitalia. I’ve logged quite a few hours peering into a microscope dissecting the genitalia of the moths that I study. Mark even has a list of one liner’s to describe my work with ‘moth balls’ or ‘bug nuts’ to other people.

Systematic entomology and taxonomy are largely based on morphology (external and internal), the emergence and increased availability of molecular techniques have supplemented these fields. In a large number of cases the molecular data merely confirms the phylogeny that was determined by years of comparative anatomy data. In other cases, there are surprising results elucidating plesiomorphies or synapomorphies; clarifying areas riddled with taxonomic static. Or it may place new species in their appropriate places on the phylogenetic trees. And of course these matters get complicated further depending on which statistical route of interpretation is followed, there are warring factions over which methods should be used (cladistics vs. phylogenetics vs. parsimony… the list could go on and on). It is far from an exact science, but I still prefer the comparative anatomy approach, I am continually amazed and fascinated by morphology and what it can teach us.

By arming myself with knowledge ahead of time, I’ll be more likely to face less difficulty in the preliminary sorting. But if I’m so new to riparian insects why did they hire me for this job, you ask. This is how everyone learns to identify organisms; you get in there up to your elbows in goo and learn first hand, gradually building your body of knowledge and expertise over the years.

Taxonomy is a dying science, experts are retiring, aging and becoming extinct faster than students can replace them. This is a plight that every taxonomist faces and tries their best to encourage others to pursue this endangered career path. It is precisely because of the enthusiasm, love of learning and concern for biodiversity of my advisor and mentor that I am involved in entomology today. I wasn’t one of those kids that played with bugs when I was young, I was outside poking around with everything. I’ve always had an interest in the natural world, biology, biodiversity and environmental health. It wasn’t until my return to school to pursue a second degree that I came to understand and appreciate just how valuable and versatile a research tool insects are that sparked my passion.

Taxonomy is the keystone of information for contextualizing biological and ecological research!

This rant could continue, but I’ll stop here. Did I at least convince someone to study the taxonomy of some group of organisms out there?