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The Forest Through the Trees: Undergraduate Discovers New Species and More

behind the scenes, bts, national science foundation, nsf, The Evergreen State College, Jennie Russ, forest, rain forest, Guatemala, Leaf Litter Arthropods of Mesoamerica, LLAMA, Central America, biodiversity, new insect species, new Guatemalan species, un
Heavy-Lifting: Pushing our truck way up to our first site in a cloud forest. (Image credit: José Monzón Sierra, Universidad del Calle de Guatemala )

This Behind the Scenes article was provided to LiveScience in partnership with the National Science Foundation.

As an undergraduate at The Evergreen State College, I thought I knew what I was getting into when I applied to work as a field assistant.

I signed up to collect insects for two months in Guatemala as a part of the Leaf Litter Arthropods of Mesoamerica (LLAMA) project. LLAMA, which is supported by the National Science Foundation, is a multi-year project dedicated to cataloguing biodiversity across parts of Central America.

Before joining LLAMA, I expected that the project would entail hard work and lots of taxonomy (the science of naming, describing and classifying organisms). I sensed that I would be embarking on some sort of life-changing experience. Both would ultimately turn out to be true.

Prior to my experience, I also completely underestimated the sense of personal change that I would feel from the hard work, novelty, self-exploration and spirit of team kinship that were part of my experience.

Mixed Feelings

I responded to my acceptance into LLAMA with both delight and dread. Delight at the prospect of living my childhood dream to study insects in Central America, but also real nervousness. I had never been an avid hiker or camper and had spent minimal time outside of the United States.

Although I had lots of curiosity and love for arthropods (a group of invertebrates that includes crustaceans, insects, spiders, and centipedes), I had little experience studying them.

But my dread faded soon after starting the LLAMA project as I became utterly enamored with the environment. I delighted in the amazing and often unnoticed little creatures living in the leaf litter on the forest floor. Just as importantly, I also delighted in the sense of camaraderie among the members of my research team — a group of fourteen undergrads, graduate students, postdoctoral researchers and Guatemalan aides. As we completed various demanding tasks together — from sifting in the field to sorting in the lab — we learned about arthropods and about each other.

Those experiences inspired me to celebrate LLAMA in an animated format (see the accompanying Sifting animation); I am happy that, thanks to my friend and animator Ryan Buck, I was able to do this.

Into the Forest

My research team worked in nine study sites in Guatemala that we had chosen because they covered a wide range of elevations. Although the previous year's LLAMA team had worked in Chiapas, Mexico, we were the first to work in Guatemala. This was our exploration.

We stayed at each of the study sites for five days — mostly sampling the leaf litter on the forest floor. We targeted our work on leaf litter because litter ecosystems contain more species diversity than any other type of land ecosystem. Most of a forest's plants and animals eventually fall into this litter, and then decompose there with the help of a great diversity of ants and other arthropods — many of which have not yet been identified.

Getting Down and Dirty

Here is how we spent our five field days at each site.

Day #1:

Arrive at site, unpack and set up field camp.

Day #2:

This day was spent conducting two difficult tasks — making transects and hanging so-called Winklers — and was therefore our most difficult day. We would start this day trudging into the jungle equipped with large sifting instruments, machetes, compasses and backpacks filled with lunch and collecting and measuring tools.

After reaching our research site, we would measure off a 250-meter (about 270 yards) line in the jungle with 1 square meter sections called quadrats. To process a quadrat, a collector would chop up its litter with a machete, transfer the litter into a sifter, and then sift like mad, jostling the litter in the sifter like he making stir-fry.

As we sifted, our litter samples would be labeled for tracking by a data-keeper. (The position was a dubious honor, because the data keeper was required to remain immobile while working, guaranteeing many bug bites.)

After completing each transect, we packed our bagged litter into our backpacks and trudged back to camp knowing our next task was to hang the Winkler bags. The Winkler bag is difficult to describe but depicted with loving accuracy in the Sifting animation.

The ghostly white, pleasingly rectangular clothed frames of each hanging Winkler housed a mesh sack containing the precious, sifted litter. We suspended each Winkler from the ceiling for three days – during which time, captured arthropods would crawl out of the mesh and plunge funnel-fashion to their demise into a collecting bag that held a layer of deadly ethanol in its bottom.

Hanging Winklers is a bit of an art, though the skill seems to have no practical purpose outside of insect collection (if anyone needs someone who can gently joggle a mesh sac while dirt is carefully poured into it, I am the woman for the job).

Day #3:

Baiting and beating — two amusing terms that describe particularly targeted methods of insect collection. Here is how I used those methods to collect arthropods.

Beating: I would walk along a path, periodically whacking a group of plants hard with a good-sized stick, and then collecting the arthropod fallout onto a piece of sheet-like fabric positioned under the plants.

Next, I would intensely scan the fabric for ants or weevils — careful to discern weevils, some of which appeared dirt-like and would hide in plain sight by "playing dead." The only way to definitely distinguish a weevil from dirt was via "the crumbling test," which involved touching the specimen to see if it would crumble (crumble = dirt).

Baiting: I would lay out 20 index cards along a trail, and place crumbled cookies on top of each card. (Pecan Sandies are the cookie of choice for ants.) Then, I would scrutinize the cookie crumbs for signs of waving antennae or rapid motion.

Interestingly, our lowland baits tended to immediately draw big solitary foragers that stole huge hunks of cookie; smaller species followed. By contrast, our highland baits tended to draw ants that hid motionless beneath cards, clutching even the tiniest chunks of cookie.

Usually I was able to collect ants from the cards with an indispensable tubular tool called a pooter; I would coax specimens into the bottom of the pooter by sucking on its top end. (Thankfully, mesh separates the two ends of a pooter.) Next, I would transfer my captured specimens into a vial full of ethanol. (This action is humorously called "pooting.")

But one problem with the pooter is that larger, mobile and visually aware ants may escape it by dodging under leaves. No matter how zealously I tried to coax large dodging ants into the pooter, I invariably failed to capture them. In such cases, I would be reduced to probing clumsily under leaves, cursing at the taste of macrobiotic bursts of ant-less humus.

Day #4:

More baiting and beating.

Day #5:

Harvesting Winklers. This involved unhanging each Winkler bag after removing the precious ethanol jar full of arthropods.

Day #6:

Go to the next site to continue the process.

A Sorting Frenzy

During our time in the field, we collected a total of 900 transect samples, which we organized during a full-blown sorting frenzy at the Universidad del Vallein Guatemala City.

Sorting involved dumping our given transect sample into a petri dish and — using some handy tools (forceps and pipets) — sorting out ants, weevils, wasps, spiders, centipedes, flies and such under the microscope. During breaks, we snacked on delicious sweet bread even though our hands tasted of the foul ethanol additive.

It was extremely gratifying to learn that, as a part of the LLAMA project, my fellow researchers and I contributed to the collection and identification of at least 200 new species of ants alone — plus significant numbers of new species of weevils and other arthropods.

At the end of the program, we all dispersed — a bittersweet end to the undertaking. I am currently in my senior year at Evergreen State College majoring in Chemistry and would like to study insect-related chemistry in graduate school.

Truly Collaborative Science

The research team: A farewell photo taken at our last field site. Jennie Russ is second from the left in the front row (crouching and wearing a headlamp and blue hat). (Image credit: Michael Branstetter, Graduate Student in Entomology, UC Davis)

We were a loving hierarchy; our top dogs were John Longino (who we called Jack) of The Evergreen State College, a researcher who specializes in ants and Robert Anderson (called Bob) a researcher at the Canadian Museum of Nature who specializes in weevils.

Jack and Bob kept us focused and exhilarated; they helped inspire our scientific curiosity and our yearning to become experts.

The two grad students in our team were our direct bosses. During many evenings, they would input our collected data into their laptops and set malaise traps for catching flying insects. They helped us with our daily activities, generally kept us in line and made the majority of the tough decisions.

The remaining tough decisions usually fell to our two Guatemalan aides — master multitaskers and troubleshooters who arranged transportation, housing, campsites, cooking and helped us with our Spanish.

Outdoor Lab

Finally, our group also included four paid North American undergrads (including me) and four Guatemalan undergrads. We all got on fabulously. Our work was hard, and sometimes seemingly unrewarding (not in the long run, though), but it was awesome. Any tensions that ever arose in our group were far outmatched by the solidarity we felt embarking on our taxing, but incredible, project.

We all rode together to and from our field sites in a red pickup truck. Packed with our gear in the truck's bed we sang songs about sifting (Sift and Shout) and Chikys (a beloved cookie we ate in the field — the song was "Don't Worry, Eat Chikys.") The boys had nicknames — Pez (fish), Pijije (a duck-like bird), and Picamas (a hot sauce).

Together, we would exaggerate and lament what we deemed to be the poor decisions of our superiors (often involving humorous impersonations), jostle each other into a nerdy frenzy about some critter ("look at this neuropteran!!") as well as look out for each others' interests ("Pez!! Passalidae over here!"). We would laugh about the poor Spanish-speaking skills of the North American students (all of the Guatemalan students spoke excellent English) and collectively sigh with knowing sympathy at the characteristic leafy crashing sound of a hiking mishap.

One day, we were riding over a bumpy dirt road in the back of our truck, on our way back to camp from the field. Pelted by high-velocity rain and dirt, we kept our eyes shut and our heads down. But because we were all huddled together, we rode along in better spirits; ready, as always, to collect more arthropods the next day.

For information about another LLAMA project, check out this NSF Discovery article, "Following the Adventurous Ant Trail."

Editor's Note: This research was supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the federal agency charged with funding basic research and education across all fields of science and engineering. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. See the Behind the Scenes Archive.