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  5. Beetlemania! Biodiversity Study Nets New Species, Trains Students

Beetlemania! Biodiversity Study Nets New Species, Trains Students

Michael Branstetter © Jane Allison

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Jane Allison (middle) joins two American students to clean and sort equipment following a day's fieldwork at Kalambe, a high altitude site in Nicaragua. Each bag holds one square metre of leaf litter collected from the sampling site.

Dan Smythe © Canadian Museum of Nature

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Beetle bounty! This vial contains beetles collected during the LLAMA Project. Each vial in the tray holds the beetles found in a specific one-metre-square plot of a sampling site. Many of the species will be new to science.

Dan Smythe © Canadian Museum of Nature

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Tammy Andrews (seated) and Jane Allison are now plugging away in Bob Anderson's lab at the museum's research and collections facility. They spend a few days a week sorting and mounting the thousands of beetles collected during the project's four field seasons.

It's no exaggeration to say that over the next few years, Dr. Bob Anderson may identify dozens upon dozens of new beetle species. He has the raw material at hand, namely thousands of unidentified specimens collected from Central America as part of a five-year international project that ends in spring 2012.

But while species discovery is top of mind, the project has another benefit. Over the course of four fieldwork seasons that wrapped up in June 2011, more than 30 students from Central America, Canada and the United States received invaluable experience in field research, collection techniques and biodiversity analysis. For them, it's a rare opportunity to grab a foothold in potential nature-related careers.

"A number of students have gone on to do a master's or Ph.D., and in Central America a few have ended up with jobs connected with conservation and nature work," explains Anderson. Two of the Canadian students, Tammy Andrews and Jane Allison, started by volunteering in Anderson's lab and are now employed as his part-time research assistants.

As the Canadian Museum of Nature's resident entomologist, Anderson specializes in the identification and classification of weevils. This is a group of beetles with about 60 000 known species and many, many more that remain unknown to science. For more than 20 years, he has traipsed through the forests and mountains of Central and South America, collecting and studying beetles as indicators of biodiversity.

In tropical environments this diversity is extremely rich. An understanding of what species exist and where they are located provides fundamental baseline information that can be applied to conservation strategies, or to the management of natural resources.

"Central America is like a corridor of exchange. There are things that live there that exist nowhere else," he explains. In Canada, the diversity is much less complex. "In the tropics, you might find 60 species of weevils in one sampling site, whereas in Canada there may be only one to three species in a similarly-sized plot."

In 2008, Anderson broke new ground with an ambitious research project known by its scientific name: Leaf Litter Arthropods of Meso-America (LLAMA). With funding from the National Science Foundation, Anderson teamed up with co-investigator and ant expert Dr. Jack Longino at Washington State's Evergreen College. They successively ventured to Mexico (Chiapas region), Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua for two-month field seasons from 2008 to 2011.

The LLAMA Project is the first of its kind to document the insects of tropical forests by moving in a straight line from sea level to mountaintop. Adding to the complexity was the collection at three set elevations in each country. This allowed the researchers to understand how species vary with changing geography as well as elevation.

The team collected insects—mainly ants and weevils—at select sites from the top layer of soil known as the leaf litter, where dead leaves and rotting wood provide habitat for a diversity of life. Each field trip engaged eight students: four from the host country and four from the United States and Canada. The teams worked long days to collect their insect bounty, sometimes hiking to remote areas that had seen very little human impact.

"Once we arrived at a site, we would set up camp, scope out sites for sampling, and prepare the equipment for collection," explains Allison, a Carleton University master's graduate who was the lone Canadian student on the 2011 Nicaragua expedition. "The days were long, with everyone doing their bit on the ground, getting dirty."

Before departing, Allison was able to glean some tips from Andrews, who had followed the LLAMA team to Honduras in 2010. The University of Ottawa student was new to fieldwork, but she was familiar with Anderson's weevils. During her early volunteer duties at the museum, she had sorted some of the samples he had collected from Mexico in 2008.

The two research assistants now work under Anderson's guidance as they sort, mount and label the thousands of beetles collected during the project. "The diversity is staggering," explains Anderson, as he shows off speck-sized beetles at his lab in the museum's research and collections facility. Many are barely larger than the heads of the pins on which they are stuck for presentation and study. "It's interesting to see how you decide what a species is, what differentiates it from another, and other aspects of identification," explains Allison.

Eventually, their work is turned over to Anderson for the fine scientific analysis required to identify the species. Progress is slow but steady. The specimens from the 2008 trip to Mexico are all labelled and have been broadly sorted based on the genus, with species identifications to come. The 2009 specimens from Guatemala are one step behind, having been mounted and prepared for examination. Now, they are being sorted by genus into a specialized database.

"Pretty well everything is new," explains Anderson, illustrating his point with stats from Chiapas, where maybe just 5% of the beetles are known to science. In Anderson's most recent publication, which was about a group of weevils named Theognete, he described 95 species that were new to science. Many were collected during the LLAMA Project. Previous to the study, only one species of this group was known!

The LLAMA project will officially wrap up in March 2012, when all the insects are expected to be mounted, labelled and sorted into groups. There have been about 15 scientific publications from the project, with more to come as new species are identified.

But the legacy from the project will endure in other ways. "The most interesting thing has been that spirit of discovery, the idea that you can still go out in nature and find new things," explains Allison.

Learn more about the LLAMA Project, and see photos.