A Colombian researcher has spent years scouring museum collections around the world to help answer a big question: how many different kinds of assassin bugs are there?
The New World resin bugs (assassin bugs from the tribe Apiomerini) in the genus Apiomerus, use sticky plant resin to hook on to insect prey and also to protect their eggs. Their fierce name comes from their role as a predator of other insects.
Dimitri Forero, a professor at the Instituto de Ciencias Naturales at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia in Bogota, Colombia, says that he has spent years trying to finish a massive undertaking: a taxonomic revision of a large group of assassin bugs in the genus Apiomerus, that live exclusively in the Americas.
When they started, Ferero and coauthor Christiane Weirauch found that this genus and the closely related ones have very interesting biologies, but there was a catch: identifying species of Apiomerus was really challenging.
“Because there are more than 110 names out there, and in many cases it is really difficult to know which name corresponds to which biological entity, a species,” Forero says, adding that to make it even harder, many of the species are variable in color.
“That means that in a single population you might have dark specimens living together with pale ones, or those with yellow knees, and such,” he says, “Thus, trying to match an already proposed (existing) name with a particular specimen was challenging.”
According to Forero, many of the original specimens used to describe these species were housed in collections in Europe.
“So after borrowing thousands of specimens from many natural history collections around the world, and finding great attributes (besides coloration), such as genitalic structures, we were able to start linking already existing names with the biological entity, the species,” he says, “At the end, we will have about the same number of species, a little more that a hundred, but with a more clean house.”
Forero says many of the already proposed names will end up pointing to the same species and thus letting the researchers know what is named and what is an undiscovered, new species deserving of a new name.
“This is really important because it solves a large chunk of the problems of one of the most pressing issues in biodiversity studies: what is this species name,” he says, “Although we did our best effort to be as complete as possible, I am sure that some species would still be out there awaiting formal description, in particular from areas seldom explored.”
Forero was born in Guayaquil, Ecuador, to Colombian parents and was always been fascinated with insects since he was a little kid.
“Being raised in the hot and humid coast of Ecuador, this was the perfect setting for finding insects,” he says, “I marveled about all the little crawling things: What was it? What was its name? What did it do, eat, live?”
Forero explained that this great curiosity about the insects led to his interest in becoming an entomologist which in turn resulted in him studying biology as an undergraduate.
“While doing my undergraduate studies, and learning about insects, I started looking more carefully at the various insect groups of the collection,” he says, “Although some are very charismatic, like the beetles, I found that the true bugs (insects of the order Hemiptera) were truly fascinating, because of their different forms, sizes, and colors.”
Forero explains that because Global South is where the majority of the biodiversity of the planet is concentrated, it is also a place where many challenges to the conservation of this biodiversity exist.
“I think that as scientists from the Global South we have the responsibility to provide adequate solutions to our unique societal problems,” he says “We need to keep doing science in our countries because we are the ones living here, and our survivorship depends on our proposed solutions; nobody else will resolve our problems.”
From Bugs to Butterflies
Another Colombian who is trying to classify the country’s great diversity of insects, is Juan Guillermo Jaramillo Velasquez.
He first took up digital photography of butterflies in Colombia because it was easier than photographing birds, but in a big part thanks to his efforts, Colombia now has the world’s biggest confirmed database of Lepidoptera, the order of insects that includes butterflies and moths.
Today, there are 3,642 species officially documented in the South American country and of these, over 200 are endemic, found only in Colombia.
This is in no small part to the efforts of Jaramillo, American photographer Kim Garwood and Colombian biologists Cristóbal Ríos and Blanca Huertas to develop a butterfly database.
“You can only conserve what you know about,” he says, “If we can say to the authorities, here’s a list, now you know what you have, they can take better care of them.”