WASHINGTON – On a typical afternoon, the insect zoo at the National Museum of Natural History is full of sound and light. Over the chirping of crickets and cicadas, young visitors study fat spiders and enormous millipedes with horror and fascination.
“What is that?”
In the dim maze of hallways behind the exhibits, it is much quieter. Here, Dr. Terry Erwin, a curator of the museum’s beetle collection, spends his days surrounded by insects. Eleven million of them, to be exact – one of the largest insect archives in the world.
The halls are lined with huge beige lockers filled with thousands of beetles impaled on silver pins. In Erwin’s office, trays of beetle specimens are stacked on every available surface.
“Entomology ran out of space about four years ago,” Erwin said of the clutter. “Basically, we stack them anywhere. Then we get in trouble with the fire marshall.”
Erwin, a young 54 in khakis and steel-rimmed glasses, specializes in ground beetles, an unassuming group that has infiltrated almost every ecosystem on the planet.
He began studying beetles as an undergraduate at San Jose State University. He was a general biology student when he first took an entomology class with professor Gordon Edwards.
“Terry immediately took an interest in entomology,” said Edwards, who is now a professor emeritus at the college. “Everything he heard about entomology he remembered.”
Through Edwards, Erwin became involved in a project identifying bombardier beetles, insects that produce an acid that heats up to 100 degrees Celsius and can stun predators.
“There were two students working on the project before and they gave up because they all look alike,” Edwards said of the beetles.
“Terry made some dissections and was able to find some fine distinctions,” he said. “He found three undiscovered species.”
Erwin went on to complete his doctorate at the University of Alberta before the Smithsonian hired him in 1970. One of his first projects was working on the insect zoo, an exhibit at the Natural History museum that includes live insects. Erwin helped plan the exhibit and for five years after that served as its scientific consultant.
In the late 1970s, he began studying beetles living in the canopies of tropical forests. Through that research he became concerned about biodiversity.
In 1981, Erwin published a paper revising the number of known species on the planet from 1.5 million to 30 million.
The paper galvanized awareness in conservation circles of how many species were being lost to rain forest development, he said.
“His work was incredibly important,” said Melody Allen, director of the Xerces Society, the only group in the world devoted to the conservation of insects.
“Most scientists had not even thought about conservation at that point,” she said.
Most conservation efforts are focused on vertebrates, which only make up 3 percent of the 30 million estimated species, Erwin said.
“Some people say, `Who gives a damn if we lose the insects,'” Erwin said. “The problem is that insects and their relatives really could tell us a tremendous amount about habitats and communities and stuff like that.
“Insects are much finer monitors of what is going on,” the Arlington, Va., resident said.
For the last year, Erwin has been studying the effects of development on a section of the Ecuadorian rain forest.
A shoe box near his desk is filled with glass vials of insects gathered on his most recent trip to Ecuador. On a typical survey, Erwin and his assistants may collect more than 100,000 insects.
These insects help Erwin monitor the subtle effects of development, such as the impact of a natural gas flare that was attracting millions of insects from the forest to a fiery death.
“Most people would say, `Well, there’s a bunch of dead insects,’ ” Erwin said. “But those insects provide ecological services for the forest.”
They also provide good dinner conversation.
“At general cocktail parties it’s really great, because no one has met an entomologist. So you’re the center of attention,” he said. But after the conversation gets rolling, people admit their true feelings, he said, amused. “Someone might say, `Oh, cockroaches give me the willies.’ ” -30-