KU News Release

Oct. 14, 2010
Contact: Brendan M. Lynch, University Relations, (785) 864-8855

Water beetle expert discovers 20 species in pristine rainforest of Suriname

LAWRENCE — Hundreds of miles from the nearest road, he canoed from camp to camp through one of the planet’s few remaining untouched tropical forests, one of a band of international scientists searching for unknown plants and animals.

For almost four weeks in late summer, University of Kansas entomologist Andrew Short scoured the unspoiled tropical rainforest of Suriname, the small country located just above the equator along the north coast of South America.

The young assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology was stalking undiscovered species of aquatic beetles.

“When you’re standing in the middle of a stream and you collect a tiny brown beetle, no bigger than a pinhead, it’s really difficult to know exactly the significance,” said Short. “But I work a lot in this region of northern South America, so I have an idea of what to expect in the field. If I see something and I don’t know what it is, then I have a good indication that it’s something that no one has seen.”

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Indeed, of the 85 species of water beetles he collected in Suriname, the KU researcher said that 20 were likely new to science.

“The most interesting find for me on the trip was on this particular kind of rock called an ‘inselberg’ — these granite outcrops that rise up out of the forest,” said Short. “There’s a kind of aquatic beetle and insect community that only lives on these rock outcrops. We were fortunate enough to find one, and it had a little bit of water — just enough to find a few species that are new to science and may contribute to our understanding of evolution and biogeography.”

Discovering new beetles is nothing new to Short, who already has described 103 species in his career.

Short’s venture into the Surinamese forests was a part of Conservation International’s Rapid Assessment Program, which the Arlington, Va.-based group runs in various countries “to quickly provide the biological information necessary to catalyze conservation action and improve biodiversity protection.”

According to Short, Suriname boasts a uniquely unspoiled environment, still untouched by human habitation or industry.

“Suriname has an almost entirely intact forest — except for a little bit along the coast where most of the people live and a little bit of mining,” he said. “There really exists a huge opportunity for this country to preserve in wholesale its entire biodiversity. There is no loss yet, which is really rare for most developing countries.”

To hit upon plants and animals new to science, Short and his fellow researchers faced sometimes-dangerous travel through the virgin rainforest. Luckily, the trip was free from serious mishap.

“A canoe did lose control on a rapids,” Short said. “It slipped back and smashed its propeller on the rocks. We were delayed for several hours — but in the grand scheme of things, if that’s the worst thing that happens then it’s not a bad day.”

Back on KU’s Lawrence campus, Short and his team now are preparing the specimens he collected in Suriname. Some will go into a frozen tissue collection for use as DNA samples. The rest will be mounted on pins and entered into KU’s world-renowned entomology collection, where they will be available for study by specialists at KU and around the world.

In the meantime, Short will contribute to a Conservation International account of Suriname’s biodiversity.

“We’ll spend the next month doing a preliminary report, with an initial impression of what our samples are telling us,” said Short. “Within the next year, we’ll write a more detailed report of what we found at each site, and that will be complied into a small book that provides baseline data. We’ll also give recommendations for conservation, if they’re warranted, and assess any impacts that these particular areas might be facing in Suriname.”

The University of Kansas is a major comprehensive research and teaching university. University Relations is the central public relations office for KU's Lawrence campus.

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