Expeditions continue for the Smithsonian’s Global Genome Initiative!
Toothbrush, sun hat, camera, liquid nitrogen containers… We had some unusual luggage on our recent collecting expedition to Argentina.
I am Matt Buffington, and I am a research entomologist with the Systematic Entomology Laboratory of the Agricultural Research Service, USDA, housed at the National Museum of Natural History. My research focuses on parasitic wasps, which we use in agriculture for controlling pest insect populations that compete with humans for food.
Parasitic wasps are very small (typically 2mm long) and it is very difficult to tell some species apart. My job is to research these species, describe species new to science, and produce publications that help other researchers understand these species and identify them correctly. This data helps the research community more effectively manage and protect our natural and agricultural ecosystems.
This GGI expedition piggy-backed on a trip to Argentina to teach the taxonomy and biology of wasps to an international group of students. This collecting expedition was in collaboration with the Foundation for the Study of Invasive Species (Fundacion para el estudio de especies invasivas, FuEDEI ), and in particular, with the entomologists Willie Cabrera and Fernando McKay. These two researchers each led a group of scientists to different research locations. One team headed to Patagonia with Willie, the other to the Iguazu National Park with Fernando and me. After driving over two days to our site, collecting began in earnest!
Our field work had two major goals, to sample indigenous insects of the Iguazu National Park; and develop field protocols for collecting, databasing, and preserving insect specimens in liquid nitrogen. Preserving specimens in the comfort of the lab can be straightforward. However, working deep in a tropical forest can present challenges for documenting and preserving these specimens in liquid nitrogen. Since the Global Genome Initiative is relatively new, our documentation of the process helps to describe best practices for other researchers to use.
We experimented with forms of ‘mobile-trapping’ to maximize our catch, here Fernando aspirates insects off of a black-light sheet draped off the back of our field vehicle.
Here are two examples of digital vouchers, an Argiope argentata orbeaver spider and a Cassidine chrysomelid beetle.
Digitally vouchering in the field is typically not easy. Smartphones are a game-changer in this case, as the device made for capturing images very fast and reliable. In this case, the phone is attached to a small tripod, the specimen is adjusted for focus, and then photographed. The image file was then sent via Airdrop to a laptop, where it was linked to the barcode number for the same specimen.
After six solid days of collecting by both teams, a total of 1,479 specimens had been collected, identified, databased and deposited in liquid nitrogen. These specimens help form the basis of the insect collection of the GGI, and a fantastic amount of logistical information was gathered on how, and how not, to collect specimens into liquid nitrogen when abroad in the tropics. Stay tuned for more expeditions by following the hashtag #SmithsonianGGI!
By Matt Buffington, Research Entomologist with the Systematic Entomology Laboratory, Agricultural Research Service , USDA