What do you love? A pictorial ode to Tiputini | Curator of Coleoptera

Scientists often don’t have time for romance. We are married to our science; the data we generate is millions of little babies lovingly brought forth into the world, all with the potential for greatness. For us natural scientists working in Museums, it is our collections we love and care for. And then, digging deeper, what motivates this love? It is (I like to think for most) a passion for the world and all its natural organisms. And there is no greater passion for a natural scientist than to experience those organisms in their natural environment.

Photo showing the curators stood behind a table with a number of specimen drawers laid out on top of it.

Some Coleoptera curators in their natural environment: (from l-r) Beulah Garner, Michael Geiser, Max Barclay, Malcolm Kerley, Roger Booth.

Natural environments are under threat, as we face the 6th great extinction we custodians of the creatures of the world, arbiters of our understanding of our notion of what is a species, may be racing against time. And so we venture forth into the remaining natural habitats of the world in order to document their biodiversity. Not only to build upon the collecting legacy of previous great natural scientists (I heart Darwin) but to discover the ‘new’ and what this ‘new’ can tell us about the natural world. For this, there is no better organism than the beetle (I heart beetles #beetlebias)

Photo showing a geographical map of South America, with beetle specimens and labels pinpointed to particular locations via strings to areas on the coast of the continent.

A snap-shot of some of the beetles Darwin collected during the Voyage of the Beagle (1831-1836)

So following on from this year’s Valentine’s, if you are unlucky in love, or suffer the pain of unrequitedness, why not consider a non-human love. For as the Wizard of Oz once pointed out to the Tin Man:

“How about my heart?” asked the Tin Woodman. “Why, as for that,” answered Oz, “I think you are wrong to want a heart. It makes most people unhappy. If you only knew it, you are in luck not to have a heart.” “That must be a matter of opinion,” said the Tin Woodman. “For my part, I will bear all the unhappiness without a murmur, if you will give me the heart.”

Credit: L. Frank Baum, 1900.

Photo showing Mary and Oliver walking and collecting on a mud bank beside a river

I joined Dr Mary Liz Jameson (Scarabaeidae beetle expert) of Wichita State University and Oliver Keller, now a PhD student in Lampyrids (Fireflies) at Marc Branham’s Lab, Florida in hunting tiger beetles on the Ninnescah Reserve, Kansas.

Anyway, I digress, what place on earth do you really love, where does your heart beat fastest, where in the world are you overwhelmed with joy at the beauty before you?

This I have spent much time considering and my cold scientific heart keeps returning to one of the most remarkable places I have had the privilege to work in, and that is Yasuni National Park of Ecuador. More precisely the Yasuni Biosphere Reserve widely regarded as a biodiversity hotspot and some might say the most diverse place on earth!

A grand statement you might say; but, based on what we know thus far this statement is backed up by numbers, for example:

  • A single tree in Yasuni National Park is home to 43 species of ants – more species than the entire United Kingdom.
  • But guess what – though many mammal, bird, reptile and amphibian species are known – we still haven’t scratched the surface of what there is to know about the invertebrate fauna.
  • It is estimated that per hectare (100m x 100m) Yasuni may harbour 100,000 insect species. This is where we come in…

In November 2013 I had the privilege of being invited on field work to accompany Dr Terry Erwin of the Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC and expert on the Neotropical Carabidae (ground beetle) fauna to work on a collaborative project investigating carabid diversity at Tiputini Reserve, which covers 638 hectares (about 1500 acres) of primary lowland rainforest, we would be sampling just one hectare!

Terry has been collecting at Tiputini from established long-term plots for many years and has an incredible databank filled with beetles, many of which remain unknown (that is, unnamed) to science. Terry’s major career-long project (amongst others) is to revise the canopy dwelling carabid beetle genus, AgraHere’s a 2000 paper [PDF] by Terry, scratching the surface of Agra taxonomy.

It was not until the 1980’s when Terry pioneered a technique known as canopy fogging that we really began to understand there was a whole new frontier – that of the canopy – that had yet to be explored for its invertebrate fauna. What became rapidly apparent was that the ca. 500 known species of Agra would explode into ca. 2000 species awaiting description. Some might say this is Terry’s labour of love!

Photo showing Terry holding a fogging device at an angle and looking up into the tree canopy in the direction of the smoke it is emitting

Terry Erwin using an insecticidal fogger in the Amazon Basin, 2014

We decided that we would add another layer to this research and investigate what was happening sub-canopy, (around 20m up). So I travelled half-way around the world with 10 of my trusty SLAM traps – traps that look like a one-man tent, which can be hoisted up into the canopy – to try and answer some questions about species’ distribution and their way of life.

But first we needed permission! We submitted a project proposal to the governing body of Tiputini reserve outlining our project, our materials and methods, length of stay and future outcomes of the research. Not only that, a proportion of the beetle specimens we collected would eventually be deposited in the University of San Francisco de Quito, Quito, Ecuador, once labelled and identified. No small feat!

This project was aligned to the estimation (Erwin, 1982) that:

one third of rainforest beetle species occur in the understorey, while two-thirds of them live in the canopy

So, methods for investigating the canopy (canopy fogging) yield thousands of specimens, whilst investigations into the different forest layers below can be more precise and quantifiable; and perhaps a little more manageable in terms of numbers!

Terry hadn’t looked at the sub-canopy layer before (in these plots), so this is where I arrived on the scene. Whilst running Flight Interception Traps (FITs) in each of the ten established plots, we erected SLAM traps recording their precise locality using GPS. Bear in mind it is not easy getting a fragile tent-like structure up into a primary rainforest canopy – it’s quite dense up there!

Our objective was to document the coleoptera fauna of the sub-canopy in turn contributing to the biodiversity inventory of northern South America (and to contribute to and continue the inventory of species at Tiputini Biodiversity Station). It would also contribute to developing the collections of the Museum thereby widening our global reach in terms of making South American species available to the scientific community worldwide.

And finally, it complements Terry’s long-term studies in the area and as a pilot study will investigate whether Coleoptera (which may be utilising the sub-canopy space) are strata limited, or whether and to what degree there is a vertical exchange of species between the canopy and the understorey in the rain forest. In other words, this and Erwin’s study combined will robustly test the original 1982 hypothesis mentioned above…

And now to tell the rest of the story in images:

Collecting

Photo showing Beulah and colleague erecting a SLAM trap in situ within the Ecuadorian forest

Preparing SLAM trap for erection. A collecting bottle filled with 80% industrial methylated spirit (IMS) is secured.

Photo showing the trap in situ within the canopy of the forest

Success! SLAM trap erected into the canopy.

 

Photo showing a perspex screen erected between two trees as part of the trap

Experimenting with perspex screens and black nets for Flight Interception Traps (FITs)

Photo showing a black net erected between trees as part of the trap

Experimenting with Perspex screens and black nets for Flight Interception Traps (FITs)

Photo showing Beulah and Terry crouching and looking into the base of the trap to examine the collected specimens

Beulah and Terry investigate the day’s catch. It’s actually quite a challenge to collect water for the FIT solution – even though we are in a rainforest and by definition there shouldn’t be a shortage of it! We used a combination of water, alcohol and detergent.

Photo of Beulah's hands close-up holding an iridescent, large beetle on a piece of wood

My biggest beetle, Euchroma gigantea, the metallic wood boring beetle

Photo showing a knot of branches arranged in a semi-circle a few feet wide for the beetles.

A carabid hotel: not only did we engage in trap collecting but we also explored the forest looking for beetles. This type of construction is an excellent harbour for ground beetles.

Photo showing a yellow trap with a camouflaged reptile centred, with its tail dangling onto the edge of the trap and its body barely visible in the leaf matter on the ground.

Yellow pan trapping, (usually employed by Hymenopterists) is actually quite effective at catching carabids as well; can you spot the Anole?

Photo of Terry bending over and pootering (using a device to suck insects into a bottle) over some logs and trees

Terry, pooting, or aspirating, depending on whether you’re British or American!

 

Highs and Lows

I witnessed incredible diversity everyday – too much to mention here, but here’s a highlight, aquatic caterpillars! Yes, that’s right, caterpillars that swim!

 

As for lows, well, one is less likely to document such things, but let’s say the night our cabin was bivouacked by army ants – we were awoken by them crawling over our beds and the walls and the floor – they were unstoppable. I felt like I was running for my life!

And then, there was the friendly cabin gecko that enjoyed pooping on my pillow EVERY night. Well, these are not really lows at all. I tried!

Photo showing the forest floor covered in murky water

Flash flooding can really ruin your day – there’s a trap under there somewhere

In terms of collecting in a rainforest, placement of traps is really important. On one occasion my yellow pan traps were washed up by a localised flash flood.

Here’s something else to think about if love is not on your mind:

  • The entire Yasuni oil reserves would fuel the United States for approximately 40 days.

On leaving the rainforest, which involved a boat journey, a road trip, passing through the oil company check-point, another boat journey and then an internal flight to Quito, two things left an indelible mark on my conscience, and well, let’s say my heart. For it is true, I had fallen in love, and when one is in love, one will defend that love at any cost. Here, we encountered rainforest road kill – a departure from the road-kill pheasants on our country highways in the UK.

Photo of a colleague holding aloft a dead boa

Rainforest ‘road-kill’ – not by us, mind! – a rainbow boa (Epicrates cenchria)

Here too we saw the gas flares. These “flare” or burn natural gas that is a by-product of drilling. It is not simply a moth to the flame… not only moths, but all sorts of other insects, and then, birds, bats, any flying creature may fall victim. The effect on the abundance and diversity of the forest can only be lamented.

 

Photo showing Terry stood leaning on a sign saying "Quiet, trees at work"

All I can say is it’s a good job there are people like Terry in the world to make sure that the trees continue to do their job – our lungs of the world!

I am indebted to Terry Erwin for the opportunity to study in this most sacred of places. I am also indebted to Dr Kelly Swing, Director of the Tiputini Reserve, whose hospitality and generosity, and indeed unerring spirit in the face of continued threats to this rainforest habitat, continues to be an inspiration; to the staff of the Tiputini station for their care and hospitality, in particular Diego Mosquera; also to the Department of Life Sciences at the Museum for funding to support this research; and to Max Barclay, Collections manager, for allowing for time spent away from curation! Now to get those beetles identified…

Photo showing Terry and Beulah holding a specimen tray with pinned beetles

Beulah and Terry in ‘my’ office at the Smithsonian working with some Neotropical Lebiines.

 

Photo showing Kelly holding an SLR camera and taking a photo of a specimen on a leaf

Kelly Swing documenting diversity – can you spot the forest Dragon?

Photo showing a sunset above the trees of the forest

Sunset view, from 50m, over the forest canopy

 

Photo of Beulah stood with her arms outstretched and dwarfed by the root system of a Ficus tree

Me with one of my many loves, a giant Ficus.

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