Fieldwork Matters

Before almost every trip to Central America that I take I get the usual questions from people thinking I am going to a tropical paradise of endless sun and beaches. I’m not, and I love it! Generally my destinations are high elevation, cold, wet, cloud-shrouded forests that by 2:00 in the afternoon are usually drenched by heavy rains. It may not be for everyone, but it’s my kind of paradise!

Three men standing in front of house on hillside.

Accommodations at Vega Del Volcan, on the slopes of Volcan Tacana, surrounded by forests. San Marcos, Guatemala, 2600m elevation. Photo: © Jose Monzon

On June 1, I departed Ottawa for Guatemala. This was my fifth trip to this diverse Central American country and I thought perhaps my last. I was beginning to think that maybe I had collected specimens in all of the major areas of the country, and had the diversity of the weevil fauna (beetles) well enough represented in our collections, that no more trips would be necessary. Alas, it was not to be so. Let me illustrate with three examples of discoveries of new species made on this last trip.

1. Nemonychids in Guatemala
Nemonychidae refer to a primitive group of weevils commonly known as pine flower snout beetles. There are two main groups: one in North America associated with pines, and one in South America associated with monkey puzzle trees (genus Araucaria). In the last few years a few specimens of the genus Atopomacer have been collected in Mexico on pines, and in Panama, Costa Rica and Honduras, on a strange conifer genus called Podocarpus. No Nemonychidae were known from Guatemala; that is, until my most recent trip. At two places we noticed some Podocarpus trees and were wondering if we might get some nemonychids from leaf litter underneath the trees. Sure enough we got specimens of Atopomacer at both places. It’s unknown right now if these new specimens represent an already named species or something new. Dissections of the internal structures, especially male genitalia, should provide these answers.

An extreme close-up of a beige-looking beetle.

A possible new species of the nemonychid genus Atopomacer. This is a male as can be seen by the y-shaped projection coming from between the front legs. Near Zacapa, Guatemala. Photo: François Génier © Canadian Museum of Nature

2. Cylindrocopturus on cactus
The cacti are a group of spiny succulent plants limited in their native distribution to North, Central and South America. One of the strangest is a tree-like cactus placed in the genus Pereskia. I knew of no weevils associated with Pereskia outside of South America, but when we discovered some Pereskia trees outside of the town of Zacapa in southern Guatemala, we started searching them for weevils. Within a few minutes we had collected a number of specimens of a relatively large weevil in the genus Cylindrocopturus, a group generally associated with many other plant families. We continued looking and ended up with a good number. I’m pretty sure the species is new and represents the first Pereskia-associated weevil discovered in Central America.

An extreme close-up of a beetle with light and dark colours.

A possible new species of the weevil genus Cylindrocopturus from the primitive cactus genus Pereskia. Found in Zacapa, Guatemala. Photo: François Génier © Canadian Museum of Nature

3. New species of Theognete (which is also my Twitter handle)
The weevil fauna of the leaf litter in tropical forests appears to be endless; at least that is what I am beginning to think after this trip. Back in the early 1900s a British weevil expert George Champion described a genus he called Theognete. He had two specimens of Theognete, and even though they were from distant localities—one in Mexico and one in Guatemala—he considered them one species that he called Theognete laevis. Based largely upon my fieldwork over the past 25 years at the Canadian Museum of Nature, we now know that Theognete is much more diverse with over 90 new species recently described by me and another 15 or so new ones being readied for formal description and naming. What was once thought to be but one rare species turns out to be one of the most common and diverse members of the leaf litter community in Central American cloud forests. So, had we reached the end? No. This most recent trip did not disappoint, adding at least four more new species to the seemingly endless list. It seems that every new forest we sample, even if only a few kilometres from the last, continues to reveal new species of this genus.

An extreme close-up of a dark beetle.

Another new species of the leaf litter weevil genus Theognete. There are now over 100 species of this genus known. Quiche, Guatemala. Photo: François Génier © Canadian Museum of Nature

Newly collected specimens can represent new species, adding to the long list of diversity on earth. They can test hypotheses of relationships by seeing how well they fit into existing classifications, add new host plant or habitat associations, or augment our knowledge of geographic distribution and of character evolution. Out of the thousands of specimens we collected on this trip, these are just three examples of groups that illustrate why fieldwork matters. I could have recounted the details of many others. It’s these exciting species discoveries that reinforce my love of fieldwork and encourage me to continue to head out to “my paradise” every chance I get.

Moss-covered tall oak trees.

The fantastic moss-laden oak forest at Las Majadas. Bob and his colleagues were the first people to collect specimens of leaf litter insects here. Huehuetenango, Guatemala, 3000m elevation. Photo: © Jose Monzon

A scientist and his Guatemalan guide posing in the mountains.

Bob Anderson and Esteban Matías, our local guide from Todos Santos at the highest non-volcanic place in Guatemala, La Torre, Aldea Xemal, 3900m elevation. Photo: © Jose Monzon

During this trip to Guatemala, Bob was accompanied by Zack Falin, Collection Manager of Insects at the University of Kansas and Jose Monzon, a superb Guatemalan photographer, naturalist and guide.

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One Response to Fieldwork Matters

  1. Charles Munoz says:

    What remarkable and beautiful beasts, each living its own life.

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