CORVALLIS, Ore. – This fall the Arthropod Collection at Oregon State University will get one of its largest infusions of new specimens in years, when its collection manager travels to Guyana as part of a major entomological expedition that should produce several hundred thousand new insects for analysis.
With 3 million specimens gathered since the 1870s, the OSU facility is already the leading insect collection in the Pacific Northwest and a major resource for scientific research.
But this trip, which is being supported by National Geographic, the Smithsonian Institution and Conservation International, is a journey to one of the world’s most biologically rich regions. It will provide a significant expansion to OSU’s trove of international specimens and help re-establish a reputation as one of the nation’s top university-owned insect collections for research and education.
It will also take Christopher Marshall, who oversees the Arthropod Collection, into the heart of pristine tropical jungles that remain largely untouched by humans, amidst a collection of snakes, spiders, crocodiles and disease-bearing insects that would make Indiana Jones weak in the knees.
“Just to get to this region, we have to take several flights, eventually in a small plane to a seasonal dirt landing strip,” Marshall said. “We have to get permission from the local king of the indigenous Wai Wai tribe, travel several more days upriver in dugout canoes, and then start cutting trails through the dense forest with large curved machetes.”
While widely recognized for its rich biological diversity – half of Guyana’s 8,000 species of plants are found nowhere else in the world – this terrain is also pretty intimidating and largely unpopulated, perhaps for good reason. There are extremely poisonous bushmaster snakes up to 14 feet in length that can be mistaken for a small log – one of the things Marshall needs to turn over regularly to find the beetles he studies. The scientific name of the bushmaster, Lachesis muta muta, means “brings silent death,” a testimony to the frequently fatal result of being bitten.
Huge crocodiles fill the rivers, which also have good numbers of piranhas and anacondas. Although smaller, the Fer-de-lance snake found along tropical riverbanks has caused more human deaths than any other American reptile. Mosquitoes carrying dengue fever and malaria are routine. And local sand flies can carry one particularly nasty parasitic disease called leishmaniasis, which produces flesh decay and can cause organs like your nose or ear to fall off.
But the good news, according to Marshall, is that the region is also full of butterflies, moths, spiders, scorpions, bees, beetles, ants and just about every kind of insect known – and then some. Working both during the day and night for almost a month, the group of about 30 scientists and support staff expects to discover some new species never before identified.
“Guyana is just a fascinating place for a biologist or geologist,” Marshall said. “This region of South America is characterized by geological formations called tepuis, which are massive rock plateaus with a tropical forest on top that stand thousands of feet above the surrounding flood plain. They are ‘lost worlds,’ vestiges of a much older forest, most of which was eroded away by the seasonally flooding rivers. It’s quite likely we’ll find new insect species there.”
The Arthropod Collection at OSU has about 60 percent specimens from the Pacific Northwest and 40 percent from the rest of the nation and world, Marshall said. Used by experts in entomology, geology, agriculture, forestry, archeology and many other fields, the collection not only helps define the insect life of a region but also tracks it through time. It’s invaluable for both fundamental taxonomic and applied research.
The unique species mix, among other things, seems to point to a period some 180 to 200 million years ago when northwestern North America was part of Pangea – the supercontinent. As continental drift tore apart Pangea, the insect fauna was scattered. As a result, Oregon insects have some close relatives in far flung locales, including Chile, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia.
“If you wanted to know what flower honeybees in Oregon were visiting in 1910, you could probably go to our collection and find out from pollen on our bees,” Marshall said. “Ticks from a Harvard University collection were used in such a way to track the evolution of Lyme disease on the East Coast. Here in Oregon our bumblebee collection tracks the gradual displacement of one species by another.
“We can help people study invasive species, a major concern in forestry and agriculture,” he said. “And we’ll certainly be using this collection to learn more about the impacts of climate change as it affects the Pacific Northwest.”
Because of its size and age, Marshall said, he thinks of the collection as a repository of knowledge, which has infinite amounts of information to provide answers to questions people have yet to even think of – perhaps through DNA analysis or other new technologies decades from now.
“I feel a responsibility to the scientists of the past who helped compile these millions of specimens, and I want to both protect that and build on the collection,” Marshall said. “And of course we also use the collection to get more people involved in the process of science.”
Amateur contributions to the collection are welcome and encouraged, he said, and some very valuable additions have come from people who have collected insects for a hobby and then donated their collections to the university. Anyone interested in a donation can contact Marshall at (541) 737-4349 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Even children have donated insects, some of them quite nice specimens,” Marshall said. “A young boy or girl could bring in their collection, we’ll get the necessary data from them, record the person’s name, and their insects might still be around a century from now helping some researcher who isn’t even born yet do an important scientific study.”