LARAMIE, Wyo. — Wyoming is home to about 15,000 insect species, with about 85,000 species living in North America.
That may seem like a lot of critters, but as you approach the equator that number skyrockets, University of Wyoming professor of entomology Scott Shaw said.
Take the tropical forests of eastern Ecuador, where Shaw travels annually to study caterpillars and parasitic wasps, for example. The high-elevation cloud forest of the Andes mountains, which overlooks the Amazon basin and receives rain almost every day, is one of the most bio-diverse regions in the world.
"It's just extraordinary because the diversity of moths and butterflies in this valley is probably comparable to the number of species you'd find in all of North America," he said.
Shaw works in the University of Wyoming College of Agriculture's Department of Ecosystem Science and Management and also curates the UW Insect Museum. He specializes in wasps, and he focuses on finding new ones.
"We're looking at discovering new species," he said.
He has discovered and named 152 insect species from 29 different countries and had a dozen species named after him. Right now, he said, there are about 1.5 million living things on the planet that have been described, including about a million insects.
How many living things remain undiscovered? The most conservative estimate is about 5 million. Some scientists think there may be more than 50 million.
"The truth is, we don't know exactly, which is really quite remarkable," Shaw said.
Shaw has studied insects in Ecuador since 2004. He travels to the Yanayacu Biological Station in the Quijos Valley of Ecuador as a member of a team of researchers working on a project called "Caterpillars and Parasitoids of the Eastern Andes," funded by the National Science Foundation.
Caterpillars, the immature form of moths and butterflies, are an important plant-feeding insect in the cloud forest. Researchers take live samples from the forest and house them in a research facility that Shaw described as a "caterpillar zoo." Scientists observe what and how they feed and track their development.
"We're discovering a lot of basic biology about the caterpillars," he said.
Many of the caterpillars are also preyed upon by parasitic wasps.
"From our point of view, (the wasps) are beneficial because they kill the plant-feeding insects, and therefore, in nature they help regulate the populations of those things," Shaw said.
Though he spends only a few weeks a year in Ecuador, the project is a year-round endeavor. Specimens from the site are preserved and sent to experts around the world for further study.
"The data that we're gathering are valuable to different researchers in different places depending on the orientation of our research," Shaw said.
The wasps he works with are tiny — about the size of a small ant —and many are previously unknown to science. In addition to naming new species, Shaw describes their characteristics, studies their biology and learns how they interact with other organisms.
Most of that work is done in the laboratory. It also involves collaborating with experts around the world, studying other specimens and researching decades-old archives.
"These are very small organisms, so it's an unusual situation where I can look at it in the forest when I see it and say this is definitely something new," he said.
In 2008, Shaw brought a small group of students to Ecuador with him to help with the research. During the last few years, that group has grown to about 20 people, including other faculty, graduate students, post-doctoral scientists, undergraduate researchers and even undergraduate students participating in a class on cloud forest ecology taught through UW's Honors Program.
"This area of the world has been known for quite a while as being rich in species of moths and butterflies. I really like taking students and other people there. It's hard to imagine until you get into this situation and experience it," he said.
Ph.D. student Miranda Bryant went with Shaw last year and will go again in May. She said students from all backgrounds have a unique opportunity.
"It's so eye-opening to travel with researchers and see how they work and spend two weeks in an area that's so diverse," she said.
Bryant, who is studying parasitic wasps as part of her dissertation, said she hopes to combine her background in computer science and engineering with her entomology studies in an effort to help preserve biodiversity around the world. She said Shaw's passion has been an inspiration.
The cloud forest in Ecuador is a unique, endangered habitat, and it very well may not exist a century from now, Shaw said, making the discovery work even more critical.
"I'd say that we've discovered a lot over past decades, but the need has not diminished. There's a tremendous amount that we don't know, and if anything, the need for studies like this and the need for new students to study these organisms has been increasing because of the impact of human populations spreading into the remotest parts of the world," he said.
He estimated that classifying the life on earth will take centuries of additional work.
"Little microscopic species are probably going extinct at a rate that's faster than the rate at which we're discovering and naming them, which is too bad," he said. "There's a tremendous amount of work that remains to be done in the area of biodiversity inventory."
Information from: Laramie Daily Boomerang - Laramie, http://www.laramieboomerang.com