30 million reasons you will be missedPioneer field biologist, entomologist, and mentor, Terry Erwin passes away at age 79
The world lost a brilliant mind last week when Terry L. Erwin passed away on May 11, 2020, at the age of 79. Many among us in the scientific community feel this great loss, for you did not need to have personally known, or even have met Erwin to recognize the name or appreciate the significance of his work.
Erwin not only published prolifically on beetle systematics – describing four tribes, 22 genera, and 439 species of Carabidae – but also tremendously influenced the way many think about biodiversity.
“He brought alive for many the far-off world and the mysteries therein of the neotropics,” said Beulah Garner, Senior Curator at the Natural History Museum in London, and Erwin’s colleague and friend of nine years. “I think it was the first time anyone, through their scientific exploration, had made a place and a fauna at once seem magical, touchable, and quantifiable.”
Erwin was serving as a research entomologist and curator of Coleoptera at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History at the time of his death. He was a pioneer in neotropical conservation biology and canopy research, having developed the study of tree canopy insects into an academic discipline as early as 1974.
Notably, in his small paper in 1982 that examined canopy beetles and host plant relationships to understand the number of species present in an acre of Panamanian forest, Erwin dramatically expanded our conception of terrestrial insect diversity.
As a young graduate student interested in using DNA barcoding to evaluate insect diversity in Central America and to assess global diversity estimates, Erwin’s work was a guidepost for my own research. His 1982 publication was particularly iconic. Ironically, it was in the last ‘throwaway’ paragraph (as he described it) – suggesting the presence of 30 million arthropod species, at the time estimated to be around one-and-a half million – that he sparked a global debate about the number of species on the planet.
Even years later, he was enduring in his defense of the ‘30 million’ estimate, according to Garner. His holistic approach to field biology, with Carabidae at its core, enabled him to understand the relatedness of species as well as the mechanisms that drive such incredible diversity so clearly. “Even higher [than 30 million] he would say! And, having been in the field with him, with his meticulous observations of the microverse, his pioneering investigations into the forest canopy, I absolutely believe him,” said Garner. “These were not assumptions from a dataset, a modelling outcome, these were from direct in-field observations: a true naturalist.” While his estimate has been debated, refuted, and revised to approximately seven million arthropod species, the discussion remains active today.
A true naturalist at home in the jungles of Yasuni National Park, Ecuador, 2018.
PHOTO CREDIT: Beulah Garner
While always having been interested in DNA-based techniques, it was not until much later in Erwin’s career that he used it in his own work. Heavily involved in the field of systematics, he was among the first of those in the early 1980s that experienced its infusion with the beginnings of gene sequencing. While in its own right revolutionary, sequencing technology was just another tool to study the natural world, one that would eventually be replaced by the tricorder, Erwin explained to Dr. Bilgenur Baloglu, then a Ph.D. student at the National University of Singapore studying chironomid diversity, in an interview during the International Congress of Entomology in Florida in 2016. He was referring to DNA barcoding and the beginnings of Drs. Paul Hebert and Dan Janzen’s tests with Costa Rican moths.
As noted by Dr. Scott Miller, science committee member of the International Barcode of Life Consortium (iBOL) and deputy undersecretary at the Smithsonian Institution, Erwin was always enthusiastic about collaborations between iBOL and the Smithsonian to barcode insect genera, such as that currently funded by the Global Genome Initiative (GGI). He is the main reason that Carabid beetles were one of the first families covered under the project, contributing substantially to the species barcoded and deposited on the Barcode of Life Data Systems (BOLD), according to Miller. He also collaborated with Dr. Carlos Garcia-Robledo and others at the Smithsonian on a series of papers on insect-host plant relationships, among many others, that used DNA barcoding to identify the gut contents of insect herbivores as well as egg and larval plant associations to reconstruct species interactions in tropical networks.
Miller first began working with Erwin in 1986 at the Smithsonian Institution as a postdoctoral fellow. Together they had a vision that became the Biodiversity in Latin America Tropics (BIOLAT), a program based around standardized sampling, something that may seem logical now, but was novel in fields like entomology at the time, according to Miller. Since then, a lot of other organizations have tried similar standardized programs but have struggled under the weight of the taxonomic impediment. “When seen against this background, iBOL initiatives such as the Global Malaise Program or BioAlfa are truly amazing,” said Miller. “It is most unfortunate that DNA barcoding was not available when Terry started canopy fogging!”
From planning BIOLAT, to consulting for Biosphere 2 (the subject of the documentary ‘Spaceship Earth’), to the initial canopy fogging endeavour in Papua New Guinea (PNG) that eventually led to the Binatang Research Center and the PNG insect ecology program, Erwin encouraged, guided, and inspired Miller’s endeavours for years.
Terry understood the importance of nurturing the next generation of talent, and especially the importance of diversifying the [scientific] pipeline.
“Terry understood the importance of nurturing the next generation of talent, and especially the importance of diversifying the [scientific] pipeline,” says Miller. “Terry was always eager to provide opportunities for young scientists, especially women, and people from developing countries.” While working together at the Smithsonian, Miller recounts how Erwin always hosted interns and fellows, bringing them to meetings and conferences, and trying to connect them to future opportunities.
Erwin had the greatest spirit of academic generosity, quick to provide advice, a reference from his encyclopedic library, or specimens for one’s own research, according to Garner. Erwin nurtured a passion for discovery in many students and inspired it in even more biologists. As he told Bilgenur back in 2016, you do not become a biologist if you are out for money, but you do it for the joy of being out in the field. “For me, the bottom line is if you like fieldwork, be a biologist. It’s the best place to be,” said Erwin in her interview. “If you are out in the rainforest, every single day, actually maybe every hour, there’s a tremendous discovery. And that’s what’s really rewarding – discovery.”
Erwin hunting Carabidae near the Tiputini Research Station, Ecuador, 2013.
PHOTO CREDIT: Beulah Garner
In the field, Garner recounts, Erwin would wake early, sit by the Tiputini river with black coffee and binoculars, and study the jungle whilst it woke. “Canopy fogging is a race to finish before the dawn and Terry was indefatigable,” said Garner. “It’s 4 a.m. in the primary jungles of South America, you’re setting up your traps, and Terry is right beside you, overseeing operations as if the rainforest were his orchestra and he the conductor.” In the evening after supper with head torch and aspirator, it would be time to go on a Carabidae hunt.
It’s 4 a.m. in the primary jungles of South America, you’re setting up your traps, and Terry is right beside you, overseeing operations, as if the rainforest were his orchestra and he the conductor.
He was fearless, saving Garner from a pack of marauding peccaries in Ecuador, as well as rescuing her from bivouacking army ants as they surrounded their camp in the dead of night. “He was and is the reason I endeavour to be a good field biologist,” said Garner. “His compassion and consideration and genuine every-day awe for the natural world is a method to live and work by.”
Erwin very much valued the natural world, possessing an astute understanding of it that unfortunately, he takes with him. He feared having species reduced to just a sequence and believed that the rich natural history and the awe that the living world inspires in us needed to be accounted for as well, sentiments that led him to catalyze the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL) in 2004, according to Nana Naisbitt, EOL co-catalyst, founder of Chalkboard, and Erwin’s dear friend of 22 years. The EOL makes knowledge about life on Earth globally accessible and has had a long-standing collaboration with BOLD.
As Naisbitt explained, Erwin was a profound mentor, one who changed the course of her life and the lives of many others through her work and her connection to him. He effectively snowballed Naisbitt’s career as a science champion, instrumental in her founding the Pinhead Institute, a science education non-profit and Smithsonian Affiliate. He was also key to many community outreach and mentorship programs while she worked as Executive Director of the Telluride Science Research Center, a job she got because of her work as the director of Pinhead. “It’s just impossible to say how many people he impacted,” said Naisbitt. “Terry liked to say that he plants seeds – ideas in students – and watches them grow. He planted countless seeds that grew strong and bright.”
In Naisbitt’s assessment, Erwin was able to help so many people flourish because he possessed a phenomenal gift in the way he supported them and gave them confidence without being intrusive. “He connected me to the right people, then showed up for and supported me. Most times he would just sit there quietly in meetings and let me do the talking,” said Naisbitt. “His reputation and presence were enough – it conveyed the message, ‘I anoint this person’. In that way, he was so unbelievably respectful.”
Naisbitt said that she had the impression Erwin believed he stood on the shoulders of giants. She described to me this image she had of him, of someone reaching down and pulling up younger scientists to stand on his shoulders. “And he did that so well. He did it over and over again, with immense generosity and without ego. And that is so rare.”
His reputation and presence were enough – it conveyed the message, ‘I anoint this person’. In that way, he was so unbelievably respectful.
When Dr. Marlin Rice, back in a 2015 interview, asked Erwin how he would like others to remember him, his answer was simple – by what his students do. The influence a mentor has on their students and them on theirs, he described, is an unbroken chain that keeps connecting generations of thinkers. Erwin told Rice, “There’s this chain all the way from the great old-timers down through George [Ball – his Ph.D. mentor] and his students and what I’d like to do is to keep that chain going.”
Indeed, Erwin’s brilliance, passion, and dedication for science extended those chains far beyond his students and colleagues, to countless others across space, like me. As the value of his research will certainly endure, those chains will also extend across time. Erwin was undoubtedly one of the rare ones among us whose influence has had, and will continue to have, an extraordinary reach.
Michelle Lynn D'Souza
Center for Biodiversity Genomics, Guelph, Canada
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