Plants, plant-feeding insects, and insect-feeding wasps and flies (known as parasitoids) are central components of terrestrial forest ecosystems. These plants and insects represent more than half of all described organisms in the world and comprise a larger proportion of undiscovered tropical species. This project consists of an intensive plant, caterpillar, and parasitoid insect inventory at the Yanayacu Biological Station (YBS) in the Ecuadorian Andes. The objectives are: 1) to sample and catalog the diverse community of caterpillars and associated parasitoid insects at YBS to discover new species and understand interactions between species; 2) to disseminate this information with a searchable database accessible to scientists and the public throughout the world; and 3) to discover natural history information, such as caterpillar diets, development times, and what insects feed upon specific herbivores and plants. Such information is used to test hypotheses about how diversity evolved and how it affects variables such as ecosystem stability, forest productivity, or ecosystem services.
The intellectual merit of this activity includes significant advances in insect classification by naming new species, developing identification guides, providing specimens with associated molecular data to experts, as well as providing a critical inventory that can be used in conservation efforts in the equatorial Andes (a global hot-spot of biodiversity). These 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 multiple local field assistants, senior scientists, postdoctoral researchers, collaborating insect specialists, graduate students, and undergraduate students. Therefore the project strengthens international scientific dialogue and relationships. The project includes enhancements in science education and research experience programs for minorities.
Caterpillars and Parasitoids of the Eastern Andes in Ecuador (CAPEA) is an NSF funded project dedicated to the discovery, inventory and analysis of the diversity of interactions between caterpillars, their food plants, and the parasitic wasps and flies ("parasitoids") that control populations of caterpillars. Our survey is part of a successful protocol currently in operation at coordinated sites across the Americas, including Ecuador, Costa Rica, Peru, Brazil, and the United States, but the NSF funding was for the Ecuador sites. Our approach has been to sample insects from hundreds of host plant species, and to include more intensive sampling on ecologically and economically important plants, such as species of pepper, bamboo, and alder trees. This work has provided valuable material for museums and scientists while addressing key questions about tropical biodiversity and how it varies geographically, both within the Andes and across the Americas (Figure 1). With nine years of NSF support for this collaborative research, the investigators on this project have discovered hundreds of new species and thousands of newly documented interactions between species (Figure 2). We have also produced over 90 publications (papers, chapters, and books) and have contributed web pages for 1,000+ caterpillar and parasitoid species along with 300+ plant species, on "caterpillars.org" and the Encyclopedia of Life. Publications from this NSF support have provided significant contributions to understanding conservation, biodiversity, ecology, and evolution. The highlights of the work include contributions to our understanding of a poorly studied component of biodiversity - interaction diversity. This measure of diversity is based on links between interacting species rather than species alone. Our quantitative measure of interaction diversity provides novel insight into debates in ecology and evolution and has helped document the relationships between biodiversity, ecosystem stability, productivity, and ecosystem services. An example of an ecosystem service that has been studied by our group is the control of agricultural and forest pests by parasitic wasps and flies. A major goal of future work by our group is to test specific hypotheses about how biodiversity of interactions responds to variation in other measures of diversity, such as diversity of genes or plant toxins. We also will continue to investigate the consequences of variation in interaction diversity by examining its relationship with ecosystem productivity and stability. Over the 9 years of NSF funding, CAPEA has provided training and research experience for 49 undergraduate students (including those involved in minority research experience programs), 2 professors at undergraduate institutions, 18 Ecuadorian technicians and students, 20 Ecuadorian collaborators, and 418 Earthwatch volunteers. Our effort to enhance citizen science is one of the projectâ€™s greatest contributions outside the fields of taxonomy, systematics, ecology, and evolution. Citizen generated databases have helped in our efforts to: Develop a new approach to studying biodiversity that enhances our ability to test controversial hypotheses requiring long-term and large-scale comparative data sets. Coordinate with parallel ongoing surveys to provide a more comprehensive data set across the Americas, resulting in important ecological and conservation publications. Disseminate results of these efforts via the internet (www.caterpillars.org and caterpillars.lifedesks.eol.org). Create educational and employment opportunities for local residents at many of our sites and increase the involvement of surrounding communities and land managers. Provide influential hands-on scientific experiences for high school students, teachers, and other educators through the Earthwatch scholarship programs. Our citizen science efforts also unite workers from Costa Rica, Ecuador, the United States, Brazil, and other countries to maximize the effectiveness of collaborative databases. CAPEA has employed local workers and has provided research opportunities for local students and paraecologists (at times, generating interest from the popular media). The broader educational impact of including a diversity of citizen collaborators in basic research brings immeasurable added value to our studies and goals as educators. Teachers volunteering with our project have brought methods and concepts back to their classrooms, students have made informed decisions about pursuing science careers, non-scientists have begun careers in science, and volunteers have contributed personal funds to help science and conservation. Finally, the impact of citizen scientists on funding CAPEA cannot be overstated. Our research has clearly benefited from NSF awards, as well as from other funding sources, but citizen science funding through Earthwatch Institute has allowed us to greatly extend the depth and reach of our data collecting over the past 16 years (Figure 3). As federal funding sources continue to dwindle, citizen science funding will be one of many creative and non-traditional approaches we will use to support our research; the citizen science model is particularly attractive in times of both financial exigency and financial excess.