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Title: Information Sheet, Dr. Steve Lingafelter
An Interview with Dr. Steve Lingafelter at the U.S. National Museum of Natural History.
Mr. Toan Chung interviewed Dr. Lingafelter 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?
Well, I was going to be a veterinarian, but I’ve always been interested in insects.
I frequently collected insects as a young child.
I was often in the woods collecting insects.
I just did not know anyone could get a real job working on insects.
When I was finishing my Bachelor’s degree, I met a man at the university I attended.
He working on an entomology Master’s degree, and I thought that if he could do that then maybe I could do that, too.
This was probably the first time that I realized people could go into the field of entomology.
Up until then I was going to be a veterinarian.
I think that entomology was my original love, and when I realized can that I could get a job in entomology, I decided to pursue studies of insects.
It was probably in my undergraduate junior year when I made that decision, not as early as some other people decided.
What specific kind of work do you do?
I work on systematics and taxonomy of Coleoptera (Beetles), and my focus is on systematic revisions.
I look at a poorly known group or a group with some economic importance like the Asian Longhorn Beetle and related taxa.
I then make a revision which involves my looking at all of the species in the group, stabilizing the nomenclature (names), and redescribing the species so that other people can identify them.
I also make illustrations of characters and make dichotomous keys which people can use to identify specimens to the species level.
A revision of groups is the theme of all my work.
Revisions of groups help us (1) to understand the evolution of the group, to see how it evolved and speciated, and (2) to allow users to make identifications in that group.
My groups are Long-horned Beetles (Cerambycidae) and Weevils (Curculionidae).
I don’t really do research on Silphidae (Carrion Beetles), but I am interested in them and
I also have a big interest in Spiders.
I do not really have enough time to do research on the two latter groups.
What taxonomic groups of arthropods are your assignments?
Long-horned Beetles (Cerambycidae) and Weevils (Curculionidae)
What is the most exciting project you have worked on?
Probably the Asian Longhorned Beetle project.
It is the most significant thing I have done.
It has received a lot of publicity; a lot of people are happy to see this work completed.
I think it was timely in that I got my job in 1996, which was the same year that people discovered this destructive species in the United States, so I think we both essentially arrived at the same time.
I was initially hired to work on another type of beetles, Leaf Beetles (Chrysomelidae), which I do publish on also.
The invasion of the Asian Long-horned Beetle caused a slight refocusing of my job, which was fine with me because my original love is Long-horned Beetles.
I worked for about 3 years on a book (about the Asian Long-horned Beetle and its kin) and made many trips up to Cornell University to work with my collaborator Rick Cobeck, and we just had a good time with the project.
We received significant grant money for it, which allowed me to travel to Korea, Japan, and throughout China.
I also traveled in Europe, because a component of my research is to look at type specimens.
Every species has an original specimen [a holotype] that its scientific name is based on.
As a researcher, I had to trace it [the type specimen] down to one specimen.
In many cases, a person cannot be certain of a species identification until he examines the type specimen.
Often people identify specimens based on previously incorrectly identified specimens.
So when you revise taxa, it’s a good idea to look at as many type specimens as possible.
In this beetle project, I had enough funding to visit museums to see almost all of the holotypes in the group.
So I traveled throughout Asia and to France and England where much of the type material is.
What keeps you excited about your profession?
I guess because I get to do a lot of work outside the office.
I get to travel a lot.
That is probably the main thing.
It is a 9-to-5 job in one sense that I have to be in the office, but about 1 through 2 months of the year I can be out of the country.
I can be out collecting, seeing tropical rainforests, and viewing other cultures.
It enables me to do a lot of traveling, and this is what I have wanted to do all my life.
I am essentially being paid to do what I want to do, and a lot of people can’t say that about their jobs.
I think that I am lucky with my job.
There is a lot of red tape and bureaucracy in my work that I could deal without, however.
Would you like to work on any arthropod group that is currently outside your assignment?
If yes, what is it? Why?
I would probably work with Spiders.
I have always been interested in Spiders.
My main advisor for my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees was an araneologist [spider specialist].
I took a good course from him.
The class made a big spider collection, and I had a good time.
In retirement (if you ever feel like retiring), would you continue work with arthropods?
It seems that I have the perfect job.
Honestly, I only get 20–30 hours in a standard 40-hour week that I can use for research.
When I retire, I would not have to do a lot of documentation and paper work.
Potentially, I would have a lot more time to do research without other work obligations.
I see retirement as a means of opening some entomological doors that are not open right now.
Currently, my research is highly influenced by the economic importances of insect groups.
When I retire, I may do research on the insects of my choice.
I foresee myself continuing entomological research, but doing more work on what I want to research.
How often do you see changes occurring in species due to environmental changes that occur in your specialty arthropods?
Well, usually a [significant morphological] species change is not something a person would see in his life time, because it takes many generations for a change within a species.
It usually takes many generations for marked morphological changes to occur.
Probably what shows up more are the ebb and flow of population boundaries due to deforestation or climatic conditions like severe drought or forest fires.
This causes local extinction or extirpations where a species goes extinct locally, not throughout its entire range.
This is the type of thing you see a lot of and is highly evident when you look at the collections.
You can examine old collections of species from a particular locality, and then you go to that place to try to find them.
The natural vegetation that should be there is gone.
I guess in the Long-horned Beetles, I do not know of any recent morphological changes that have occurred among a species due to environmental changes.
I think that marked morphological changes would happen over such a long time that I do not think I would see them.
Is biotic conservation important to you?
If yes, why?
It is important.
Well, there are so many reasons.
We do not know the names of most of the species on this planet.
There are so many species that are completely undiscovered, and we don’t know their roles in their ecosystems.
There are many cases in which people showed that removing a couple of species out of their ecosystem causes a disruption in its overall balance.
I think for that reason alone we should do whatever we can to preserve as much biodiversity as possible because we do not know most of the intricate species relationships in ecosystems.
We do not know how many species affect their ecosystems.
But aside from that, I think it is just aesthetically nice to live in a world that has a lot of diversity, where one can go out into a forest and see so many interesting organisms.
I cannot imagine living in a place that it is all concrete where there is just one species of cockroach, fire ant, or something else.
To me, diversity makes living interesting.
We are fortunate to have all of this diversity.
What has been your most “remarkable” bug encounter?
I went to an area in Bolivia.
This was the first time that I visited a hyper-diverse forest spot, a place with an amazing species diversity concentrated in a small area.
I had Bioquip black lights which are good for collecting night-flying Long-horned Beetles.
The lights attract them at night.
I set the lights up one night in the forest and got 110 cerambycid species and about 200 individuals at one collecting sheet illuminated by the lights.
In my 10-day trip to the forest, I collected 1,000 cerambycids in an area of about 3 square miles.
In my best day of collecting in the Washington, D.C., Area, I obtained 20 cerambycid species.
What is the most dangerous “bug” encounter you have had?
A lot of my collecting is at night, and I like Arizona because it is a diversity hot spot.
There are a lot of rattlesnakes in Arizona.
One thing I like to do is go out at night with a flashlight and look for nocturnal cerambycids on cacti.
Other collectors and I were on private property near a highway.
We did not want people in cars to see us with our flashlights on and stop to ask us what we were doing.
We decided to turn our lights off whenever we saw a car and turn them back on after it passed by.
Well, a few cars passed and nothing happened.
Then another car came and as soon as I turned off my light, I heard the rattle of a rattlesnake near my foot.
I knew I could not move, and I just had to wait until the car had passed.
When I turned my light back on, there was a rattlesnake near my foot.
If the car were not there I might have taken another step and stepped on the snake.
I was looking at the cacti, not at the ground.
I was not wearing high enough boots.
A nice thing about a rattlesnake is that it gives you a warning.
I think it would have bitten me if I had moved any more.
If you had to choose between a vertebrate and an arthropod as a pet, which would you choose.
I want a Viscacha.
[Dr. Lingafelter showed us a photograph of a Viscacha on this computer screen.]
They look like rabbits and are from Chile.
They are actually related to Chinchillas.
I think the way they sit and puff up themselves is neat.
There aren’t any insects that you want to pick up and hold like you would a mammal.
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