Plants, caterpillars, and parasitic wasps and flies that attack caterpillars (parasitoids) are important components of most terrestrial ecosystems and represent more than 20% of all described organisms in the world. ?Caterpillars and parasitoids in the Eastern Andes of Ecuador? is an intensive plant, caterpillar, and parasitoid inventory at the Yanayacu Biological Station (YBS) in the Ecuadorian Andes. The primary objectives of the project are to collect and catalog the diverse community of caterpillars and associated parasitoids at this site, to discover new species, to characterize diversity of the region, and to disseminate this information with a searchable database accessible to scientists and the public throughout the world.
The intellectual merit of the proposed activity includes significant advances in insect classification as well as providing a critical inventory that can be used in conservation efforts in the equatorial Andes, a global hotspot of biodiversity. The data will also be used to address a variety of basic and applied questions, particularly those associated with climate change and biodiversity. The broader impacts of this project include direct involvement of four local field assistants, three Ecuadorian students, three Ecuadorian senior scientists, one postdoctoral researcher, at least twelve collaborating insect specialists, and various graduate and undergraduate students. The project will also include enhancements in science education and research experience programs for minorities.
My research in Ecuador is part of the CAPEA project: Caterpillars and Parasitoids of the Eastern Andes. CAPEA is an ongoing, long-term research project dedicated to the inventory of caterpillars, and discovery of information about their life history, food plants and parasitoids. The goal of CAPEA is to survey and inventory a diverse Ecuadorian community of caterpillars and their associated parasitoids (mostly wasps and flies). We also sample specimens for museum research and gather natural history data documenting plant-caterpillar-parasitoid relationships, development rates, and other life cycle information. CAPEA is a multi-university collaborative project involving several scientists at different institutions. My particular role in CAPEA is to study the diverse microscopic wasps that emerge from many caterpillars. Since 2009 my research has resulted in the discovery and description of 48 new wasp species from Ecuador, Colombia, and Costa Rica. These wasps should be regarded as beneficial insects because they naturally regulate populations of plant-feeding insects, which in turn shape the distribution of plant species in tropical cloud forests. Ecuador is at the edge of the "biological frontier" when it comes to our understanding of tropical plants, insects, and their ecological interactions. On the slopes of the equatorial Andes, home for many unique and still-undiscovered species, most plant and insects remain poorly studied. Our study site is the Yanayacu Biological Station (YBS), located at 2200 meters elevation in the Quijos Valley, Napo Province, in the Andes Mountains of northeastern Ecuador. Yanayacu is situated just barely south of the equator (00°35.9â€™S, 77°53.4â€™W) in one of the worldâ€™s last remaining unexplored swathes of high-elevation cloud forest (www.yanayacu.org). The lichen and moss-covered trees are virtually teeming with mysterious and undiscovered life forms. Discovering new insects is more challenging than finding "a needle in a haystack" – the forest is vast and uncharted, and the microscopic insects may be no larger than the lead at the tip of a pencil. We are assisted in the search by research teams of undergraduate students and science teachers, funded by supplemental NSF-REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) and RET (Research Experience for Teachers) grants. Searching for caterpillars by hand and eye is quite challenging, requiring careful inspection of foliage for feeding damage, silk traces, and frass. In addition to hand-sampling of caterpillars, we are using Malaise traps and yellow pan traps to inventory the flying insects along trails. By utilizing diverse sampling methods we gain a broader understanding of the entire insect community at Yanayacu. One productive caterpillar-sampling method is the "beating sheet" approach. A cloth sheet supported by a wooden frame is held by one person under a branch, while another person "beats" the leaves and branches with a bamboo stick. Any caterpillars on that plant are dislodged and fall on the sheet, where they are collected into plastic bags. Returning to the research station with a dayâ€™s catch of caterpillars, the bagged larvae are coded, tagged, and hung on clothes lines in the Maquina, our caterpillar research building. The "Maquina" (the Machine) is the insectary or caterpillar –rearing shed for the CAPEA project. Literally a live caterpillar zoo – the "maquina" is the "machine" that produces specimens, data, and photographs for the CAPEA project. Each live caterpillar must be kept clean and fed new leaves daily, all changes monitored and recorded, until the caterpillar either metamorphoses to an adult moth or butterfly, or until it is killed by an emerging parasitic wasp or fly. Whatever the result - whether moth, butterfly, wasp, or fly - the emerging adult insect is preserved and labeled for museum research. So far, more than 50,000 individual caterpillars have been raised and recorded! A carnival-assortment of caterpillars can be viewed at the University of Nevada ecologist Lee Dyerâ€™s CAPEA website (www.caterpillars.org). Over the last three summers we increased student participation by teaching a study-abroad course: Cloud Forest Ecology in Ecuador. The class provides students with a unique opportunity to live in the cloud forest, study and participate in on-going tropical research, and to experience for themselves the thrill of discovering new life forms. Co-taught with UW botany professor Greg Brown, the experiential-learning class allows students to study forest ecology at a high-elevation cloud forest in the Andes Mountains. The diverse experiences of students and teachers have been chronicled by RET science teacher Jennifer Donovan at our "Experiential Science Education for Teachers" website (http://yanayacu.weebly.com/). The discovery of new insect species in Ecuador contributes to 'informing regulatory policy' by providing new knowledge of biological diversity in a cloud forest reserve. Broad impacts are that this information may allow better management and conservation decisions relating to tropical forest preserves in Ecuador (and elsewhere in the tropics). Increased knowledge of Neotropical insect biodiversity is essential to forest conservation. It is difficult to preserve and understand organisms until they are discovered, named, and their biology studied.