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.
This research involved tropical field work studying plants, caterpillars, and parasitic wasps in Andean cloud forests of Ecuador, as well as follow-up museum-based studies at the University of Wyoming. The objectives were the discovery of new insect species, and the education of a new generation of researchers. High-elevation cloud forest field studies were conducted at Yanayacu Biological Station (www.yanayacu.org) and focused on sampling caterpillars and discovering associated parasitic wasps. During the project I mentored four graduate students, as well one postdoctoral researcher, six REU students, four RET science teachers, and one ROA researcher. The goals were (1) to survey the Ecuadorian forest community of caterpillars and parasitic insects, especially the wasps of the family Braconidae, which are valuable natural regulators of plant-feeding insects; (2) to describe new insect species and their biologies; (3) to communicate our results via publications and internet; (4) to address ecological questions, such as understanding the patterns of relationships between plants, herbivores, and parasites, and studying distributions of insects along elevation gradients. Results were communicated in ten research publications in six different international research journals, one book, by invited seminars in the USA and Mexico, and via our RET website for The Biodiversity Project, available at: www.thebiodiversityproject.org and the website: www.caterpillars.org Ten journal articles resulted in discovery of 57 new species, one new genus, and many new biological observations of tropical insect species. Six species pages were created for the Encyclopedia of Life website. We acquired a Leica Auto-Montage 3-D imaging system, which has enhanced the quality of photography in my research papers, and has provided a professional skill development opportunity for my students, as well as visiting postdoctoral researchers from Mexico, Colombia, Sweden, Japan, Finland, and Brazil. Opportunities for training and professional development were provided by the ROA and REU programs. Dr. Will Robinson, Casper College, collaborated on the Research Opportunity Awards (ROA). Will, and two students, gained research experience studying insect behavior in Ecuador. All three gained field experience, as well as photography skills for studying microscopic insects. Currently we are completing a manuscript on Napo wasp behavior. We documented the behavior of the Napo townsendi wasp, including chemical-calling by males in small groups. They perch upon leaves and defend them against others by confrontations and grappling battles. Weâ€™ve observed, photographed and filmed several matings. In addition, weâ€™ve witnessed remarkable battles between the wasp and spiders. We have yet to see a predator take Napo, and Napo appears to have many weapons, probably including a noxious chemical defense effective against spiders. Our RET science teacher project enhanced public understanding of biodiversity and increased student interest in science careers by involving teachers and students from Alaska, Florida, New York, Ohio, and Wyoming. A total of 12 classrooms (250 students) participated in May 2013. The biodiversity study took place in four ecosystems: cloud forest in Ecuador; broadleaf deciduous forest in New York and Ohio; grasslands in Wyoming; and tundra in Alaska. Each site surveyed the insect communities of three 3 meter x 3 meter plots. Photographs were taken of each insect found at each site. In May 2014, the program was expanded to include participating classrooms and teachers in Florida, India, and Australia. Our work on the discovery of new parasitoid wasps and their host caterpillars in Ecuador is providing basic knowledge of the interactions of predatory wasps and plant-feeding insects, which in turn shape the distribution of cloud forest plants. This knowledge may be used by forest scientists, ecologists, students, taxonomists, biocontrol workers, and conservationists. The discovery of new insect species in Ecuador contributes to "informing regulatory policy" by providing new knowledge of biological diversity in a tropical cloud forest preserve. This may allow, in the future, better management and conservation decisions relating to Yanyacu Biological Research Station, and other tropical forest preserves in Ecuador. The education of young students about insects and plants through The Biodiversity Project seeks to broaden societies understanding and appreciation for tropical biological diversity. This may have broader impacts on societal issues such as the Biodiversity (Extinction) Crisis, and Nature Deficit Disorder, by expanding people's appreciation of living things. My experiences in Ecuador are related to the public in my new book, Planet of the Bugs, Evolution and Rise of the Insects, published by the University of Chicago Press. The book is written for a lay audience, and is intended to promote insect conservation, biodiversity studies, and entomology to the non-scientist public. One scientific paper about the discovery of 24 new insect species from Ecuador included several new species that were named after famous people, including Jimmy Fallon, John Stewart, Ellen DeGeneres, Stephen Colbert, and Shakira. A press release resulted in considerable public attention to the research with international news coverage, including prominent scientific outlets such as Science News and National Geographic, as well as many entertainment sites worldwide.