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Title: Information Sheet, Dr. Allan Norrbom
An Interview with Dr. Allen L. Norrbom at the U.S. National Museum of Natural History, August 2003.
Dr Norrbom performs research on Tephitidae and Sphaeroceridae (Copromyzinae).
He collects and identifies flies in 35 acalyptrate families, including families in Diopsoidea, Lauxanioidea, Nerioidea, and Tephritoidea and the families Acartophthalmidae, Australimyzidae, Chyromyidae, Clusiidae, Cryptochaetidae, Ropalomeridae, Sepsidae, and Sphaeroceridae.
Ms. Christianne Bird interviewed Dr. Norrbom in August 2003.
I added information (some within square brackets) to clarify the interview.
E. M. B.
What inspired you to enter the field of entomology?
I was exposed to insects when I was 10 or so.
My neighbor had a butterfly collection, so I got interested in butterfly collecting and did that for a while.
When I got to college, I thought maybe I’d go into Biochemistry or something like that.
I met a professor in my sophomore year who was an entomologist, and I became interested in insects again.
Then I found out you could actually have a job doing that, so I was like, “Wow, works for me!”
What specific kind of work do you do?
It’s all taxonomy, systematics, mainly of Fruit Flies [Family Tephritidae, not Family Drosophilidae].
[The true Fruit Flies are the Tephritids, not the Drosophilids.
Drosophilids are often called Pumice Flies or Vinegar Flies by entomologists.]
They’re not to be confused with the little drosophilas that go into bananas and actually breed in living plants.
To make it really simple, I figure out how to tell apart Fruit Flies because the USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] wants to know how to keep the pest species separated from the non-pest species.
There’s also some beneficial tephritid species, some are used for weed control.
My job is mainly to work on flies that can be important in agriculture as plant pests.
What taxonomic groups of arthropods are your assignments?
For research, I mainly work on the Fruit Flies (Tephritidae), a little bit on some related families.
I also identify species in some other families; we research entomologists receive a lot of ID requests from the APHIS [Animal and Plant Heath Inspection Service].
It deals with all the material that is intercepted at ports.
If APHIS gets a shipment of tomatoes and there’s some insects associated with them, the APHIS wants to know if the insects are pests.
If they are not pests, the APHIS doesn’t worry about them.
If they are pests, the APHIS wants to know if they are ones that are already in the U.S. or not established in the U.S.
If we don’t have these pests, the APHIS either rejects the shipment or has to treat it.
It costs the shippers a lot of money to treat shipments.
The APHIS has people in the ports who do most of the IDs, but if these people can’t identify a particular arthropod, they send it to USDA entomologists in Washington, D.C., and Beltsville, Maryland in overnight mail.
Lately, APHIS identifiers have digital cameras on microscopes at the ports, and the identifiers send us images.
If the images are good enough, local entomologists can quickly identify them.
This way the APHIS can get an identification in a matter of hours, not a day or longer that it takes if APHIS ships an arthropod specimen to us.
What is the most exciting project you have worked on?
They’re all pretty interesting.
I always enjoy going into the field because I collect Fruit Flies there and try to rear them from their host plants.
I want to find particular plants a species would breed in, so I’m out there just collecting tephritid host plants, and I don’t know what I’m going to get each time.
There’s one whole subfamily of Tephritids that breed almost exclusively in composite plants [Asteraceae].
But there’s one genus in the New World that makes galls and it’s made a jump [host switch] to a couple other families.
And one time I was collecting in Mexico and looking for galls in general, so I collected some from composites.
There was a plant there with a tephritid gall on it, and the plant turned out to be on family other than Asteraceae.
The tephritid that made that gall was a new [undescribed] species; so that was cool.
It’s always fun just finding new things nobody’s probably seen before.
I’ve almost finished a manuscript on three small genera.
Previous work described only three species, and I found about 30.
So, it’s kind of neat to see things like that.
What keeps you excited about your profession?
I like what I do.
It’s always interesting, like I said, finding new things.
I’m excited about the why technology is making some of my work a lot easier.
Now I can use things such as webpages and databases to get information.
In the past to make illustrations of specimens, you had to sit at the microscope and make drawings.
You could also take photographs with film, but it was tough to get good ones, and you had to develop your film to determine the quality of your photos.
Now with digital cameras, you can see your photograph immediately; and if you don’t like it, you can just take another photo.
Digital cameras make my work a lot easier.
Would you like to work on any arthropod group that is currently outside your assignment?
No, I have enough to do with these guys.
I already have more than a lifetime of work.
There are other insects that are cool, and I’m sure I could enjoy working on them.
But I’m happy doing what I’m doing.
In retirement (if you ever feel like retiring), would you still continue work with arthropods ("bugs")?
Probably, it all depends on the situation.
If I’m still able to and what my financial situation is.
But yeah, I could see myself doing that.
I have kids though, so I may not be able to retire for a long time.
I have twins, so I got a bonus there.
How often do you see changes occurring in species due to environmental changes that occur in your specialty arthropods?
In Tephritids, one sees host plant changes in some species.
The Apple Maggot originally attacked wild plants called hawthorns; back in about 1850, it switched to apples.
But I don’t see much change in tephritids over time, because I don’t specialize on research involved with that subject.
People who specialize on a particular species are more likely than I to see changes in a tephritid species over time.
I try to figure out which tephritid species occur in nature, how they’re evolutionarily related, how they should be classified, and how to tell them apart.
Is biotic conservation important to you?
If yes, why?
Yeah, it’s definitely important.
I think it’s terrible that so many species are going extinct.
I can’t imagine why conservation wouldn’t be important to anybody.
I enjoy being in natural areas, and all the different things you can see in them.
I think it would be a shame if many of these areas and their species disappeared.
What is your most remarkable “bug” encounter?
Well, maybe rearing that fly from Mexico that was from a different host family.
I can remember putting up a tephritid trap in the Dominican Republic one time on the wall of a hotel, I put up a big white sheet that helps to attract these flies.
Many big beetles (scarab beetles) flew like little airplanes to the sheet, and whacked into the wall.
They made a pretty good impression on me.
What is your most dangerous “bug” encounter?
Hmm, I’ve never been stung by Fire Ants or anything like that.
I guess I really haven’t had any.
If you had to choose between a vertebrate (“animal”) or arthropod (“bug”) for a pet which would you
I’d imagine I would choose a vertebrate as a pet for companionship.
My family had a dog until last year.
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