Friday, February 19, 2016

An Unknown Field

Studying off-campus is supposed to be an enriching experience, but no one prepared me for how much I learned in just a few weeks abroad. Walking through the Wilson Botanical Garden in Las Cruces, you can read the scientific names of the vast majority of the native and exotic plants, see insects only ever found in textbooks in the United States, and find something new every time you go on a hike. Amidst all this biodiversity our professors can name just about everything we encounter, using both the common and scientific name. Taxonomy has not been a large part of my education so far, but in Costa Rica, it has certainly gained my interest. Orders and suborders, families, subfamilies and superfamilies--it certainly puts the vastness of biodiversity into perspective.
This semester, we have two different projects relating to taxonomy: one identifying plants, and another identifying insects. Each comes with its own difficulties and ease; plants certainly look more phenotypically similar than insects, but insects are definitely harder to catch than a plant! The goal is to correctly identify the insect down to the family, and to create a dichotomous key for six plant families. There is a certain fascination in looking at a characteristic you have never noticed before on an insect, such as the scaling on a butterflies wing, or the difference in some species’ mouthparts. Such small features determine the difference between the orders of insects. While plants appear more similar, identifying characteristics are more visible, as in, no microscope is required to see a determining trait at the family level.
In addition to these semester-long projects, we participate in ethics discussions throughout the semester. Our most recent discussion focused on the ethics involving experimental design, debating when to draw the line in harming animals and invertebrates. Invertebrates, such as insects, have considerably less regulations on what can be done to them in the name of science. Interestingly enough, our taxonomy project, which usually involves accidentally killing the insect, came up. Is it considered cruel how we kill the insect just to classify it? Does my ability to properly classify the insect benefit the population? Does the insect even feel pain? The list of ethical questions goes on, but it provided a small piece of insight into a common research question: is it worth it to conduct the experiment at the expense of the ecosystem/organism?
We spent a good portion of time debating the topic back and forth, reaching an answer: it depends on the situation. I thoroughly enjoy the taxonomy projects, as I am absolutely intrigued by the entire classification system, even if we are not classifying down to the species level. This project opened up an entire new field to me, one I never would have previously even thought about. It also undoubtedly begins to raise questions about how to ethically conduct research, even when it involves simply catching an insect. Regardless, I am looking forward to collecting and identifying more insects and plants. Hopefully, by the end of the semester, I won’t even need my packets and flow charts to help.
Bridget Gross
College of Wooster

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