Thursday, September 17, 2015

Solving the insect taxonomy puzzle

At 8:00 AM at the Las Cruces Biological Station, we gathered in the classroom for the Insect Taxonomy workshop. First, we learned basic information about insect taxonomic groups. Then we set off in pairs to search the garden for insects of every kind. Armed with giant nets and several small bags, my partner and I scoured the area. While I had early luck catching a small butterfly, I soon learned that capturing insects is no easy task. For the next hour, we chased butterflies, wasps, and many other types of insects, though I had no further success. Luckily, my partner managed to collect ten to add to my one.
At the end of the hour, we all gathered in the lab to identify the order of each insect we had caught. We were then assigned the official insect homework: to capture ten insects and correctly identify their order and family during the remainder of our stay at Las Cruces.
                A friend and I went out around 5 PM to initiate the search. Thankfully, I had some success, managing to catch a decent-sized one with two white spots on each wing. We proceeded to the lab to identify our catch, and I quickly decided that I had a beetle. However, when I went to confirm my results, it turned out that I had not correctly identified my bug. I returned to the lab to come up with a new identification for my not-beetle. Due to dinner discussion, I knew that I had a true bug, so I only had the family left to identify. Searching my packet, I felt confident that I had an assassin bug.
                Unfortunately, it turned out I had erred in my identification once again and so I revisited the lab. I sat there for half an hour, writing down information about my bug (four segments of antennae, about 10 veins running along each wing…) and finally limited my options to either a leaf-footed bug or a broad-headed bug. I was incredibly split between the two options, convinced that I couldn’t have a leaf-footed bug because mine lacked the characteristic “leaf-foot,” while I could see from the guide that my insect did not exactly match the description of a broad-headed bug. However, not all leaf-footed bugs have that one defining characteristic, and I realized that I couldn’t possibly have a broad-headed bug because my insect did not in fact have a broad head. So I called my professor with my final conclusion: I had a leaf-footed bug. Thankfully, I had the correct identification.
                This experience taught me several lessons. Insect taxonomy is a difficult subject to first grasp, though I enjoyed the satisfaction of cracking the puzzle. While I am wary of the prospect of capturing and identifying so many more insects, I am happy that I pushed through and correctly identified this one, especially as it belonged to an order that I had not previously known about. I’m excited to learn more about each order, as getting so involved with this one sparked my curiosity, and I look forward to having equally valuable interactions with other insects during the upcoming months. 
Jessica Kuesel 
Duke University

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