Tracking Insects through Tropical Forests
Dr. Robert Anderson, the Canadian Museum of Nature's entomologist, is heading to Honduras in early May 2010. The journey represents the fourth year of an ambitious five-year project to survey and document insects in Central America.
Anderson's expertise is the study of beetles, especially weevils. He is partnering with Dr. Jack Longino, an ant specialist from Evergreen College in the U.S. state of Washington. The project is much more than an opportunity to discover new species. "It's set up to not only understand diversity, but also to share our expertise and to train students in field techniques, biodiversity analysis, insect identification and so forth."
With funding from the National Science Foundation, the two scientists are working with students to collect insects in four Central American countries: Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. The group kicked off its first field season in May 2008 in Chiapas, Mexico, followed by a season in Guatemala in 2009. The project will wrap up in 2011 following fieldwork in Nicaragua. In Honduras, the project team will collaborate with students at the Pan-American School of Agriculture in the city of Zamoran. There, Anderson and Longino will lead a workshop to help the students learn to sort and identify the insects.
The program is formally known as the Leaf Litter Arthropods of MesoAmerica Project (LLAMA). Its goal is to collect and identify insects—especially ants and weevils—found in the top layer of soil known as the leaf litter. This is the zone where dead leaves and rotting wood provide habitat for a diverse range of living things. In tropical environments this diversity is extremely rich. A study in Costa Rica found 270 species of ants in the leaf litter, significantly more than the 180 species in the trees and forest canopy.
The LLAMA Project is modelled on the Costa Rican survey, but with an added level of complexity. The team collects at three set elevations in each country (from under 500 m to more than 2000 m above sea level). This way, they can get an idea for how species vary with changing geography as well as elevation.
"One of the things we don't have much information for is how much the species change as you move around geographically, so this will provide an idea of how biodiversity is distributed in a wider sense," explains Anderson. The roving entomologist is well versed in the challenges of exploring this part of the Americas. He has spent almost 20 years trekking through parts of Central and South America, collecting and studying beetles as indicators of biodiversity.
Each field season covers about two months, and visits nine sites in each country. Much of the work is carried out by graduate and undergraduate students. It's a great introduction to the rigours of scientific fieldwork that will serve the students well in their future careers. And, as Anderson proudly notes, about three-quarters of the students involved to date are pursuing further studies related to insects or biodiversity.
Read about the LLAMA project, and see images from the fieldwork in Mexico and Guatemala at http://llama.evergreen.edu.
Dr. Anderson is available for interviews.
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