LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) - Caroline Chaboo clutches a small jar of what appears to be slimy, brownish-yellowish-blackish sludge, with a label indicating it’s from somewhere in Peru.
She unscrews the lid, dumps its contents into a tray.
Still slimy, brownish-yellowish-blackish sludge. Now smelling faintly of sterile alcohol.
She pokes into it with a pair of tweezers.
It’s nondescript sludge no more. One by one, entire insects emerge between the tips of her tweezers. A longhorn beetle, a tiny wasp, a bigger wasp, an ant, another beetle - a “really pretty” one with stripes resembling a bumblebee on its back.
“So,” Chaboo says, “this is how we start.”
Chaboo, an entomologist, is an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at University of Kansas and a curator for the university’s Museum of Natural History.
More specifically, she’s a beetle hunter.
More scientifically, the sludge in the jar is called a bulk sample. Insects are trapped and culled from the field in batches, dropped into a preserving liquid, labeled and brought back to the lab to undergo a thorough identification process.
“This jar of riches?” Chaboo said. “For me, this is the best gold you can get from the Amazon.”
Chaboo’s main, long-term research project has mushroomed into one she’s now calling “The Beetles of Peru Project.”
The Lawrence Journal-World (https://bit.ly/1Z2O1OQ ) reports that it’s an encyclopedic effort to compile all previous Peruvian beetle research from the past 300 years, collect and document all the existing species, then verify and name all the new ones.
Peru has more than 10,000 known species of beetles, Chaboo said. So far Chaboo and her team - including University of Kansas students and more than 40 other beetle experts from around the world - have discovered 1,000 new species, and that’s just in the proportionately small region of Peru she’s been visiting annually since 2007.
Though she’s publishing findings along the way, there’s not a target date for completing this project, she said. “I think, actually, the project could be multiple careers.”
That vastness is partly why Chaboo is mesmerized by beetles.
“Life on earth is just amazing,” she said. “We think we know most vertebrates now . but we really don’t know the spineless creatures.”
Of the 1.5 million species on earth that have been identified and formally named, about 900,000 of them are insects, Chaboo said. More than 400,000 of those insects are beetles, so that means roughly one in every four known animals is a beetle.
Scientists believe there could be millions more yet-undiscovered species.
The area of Peru Chaboo works in is at the base of the Andes Mountains, she said. At the lowest elevation are rainforests, which merge into cloud forests, which merge into grasslands around the tree line and eventually into rock at the highest altitude. Each layer is home to different beetles with different characteristics - for example, she said, the high-altitude beetles are usually flightless, probably evolved that way to conserve energy in the colder climate.
Chaboo first fell in love with insects on the southern Caribbean island of Trinidad, where she grew up.
She had a “weird hobby” of collecting, observing and cataloging things from nature, she said. Trees, ferns, birds, frogs. There was even an orchid phase in high school.
While an undergraduate college student in Trinidad, she joined a group of American entomologists on a nighttime field trip, during which they used a light trap to collect specimens. Insects were flying all around, she said, swarming to the trap where the scientists could just inspect and pick off the ones they wanted.
She was amazed all of them were in her own “backyard.”
After undergrad, Chaboo worked two years in the American Museum of Natural History in New York City before coming to University of Kansas for her master’s degree. She earned her doctorate from Cornell University. She has worked at University of Kansas for eight years.
In addition to the ongoing Peru project, Chaboo recently co-authored an article on poison arrows of the Namibian bushmen - they smear their arrow tips with the larvae of certain beetles that apparently are toxic enough to cause paralysis in the stricken prey.
Chaboo said she and a couple other scientists spent a month in Namibia, taking daily walks with bushmen to see how they find the beetle larvae, make arrows and use them to hunt and kill animals as large as giraffes.
An expert in leaf beetles, Chaboo was called in to help identify the types of poisonous beetles the hunters and their ancestors have relied on for generations.
Chaboo also is trying to get some of her work and love for beetles outside of the lab and science journals.
“It’s very easy in my field to be kind of cloistered in a museum,” she said.
Taking University of Kansas undergrads on expeditions to Peru and other Central American countries has been one of the best parts of her job, Chaboo said.
Inspired in part by her 7-year-old daughter, Chaboo has also gotten some Lawrence youngsters and high school students involved.
At Raintree Montessori School, which her daughter attends, she provided information for art enrichment teacher Cindy Sears to lead students ages 6 through 10 in creating and curating their own exhibit on display throughout the school, “Facing up to Beetles.”
“They are now learning as much as they can about the insects so they can give tours to visitors,” school co-founder Lleanna McReynolds said.
At Bishop Seabury Academy, Chaboo enlisted Latin teacher Amy Meyers and her ninth-grade students for help on another project.
She shared with them submissions from an international beetle naming competition, with the charge of weeding out those that were not grammatically correct Latin.
“It seems that most would not think that consulting a Latinist would be necessary, but Caroline believed it was important, and I agreed,” Meyers said. “It was a good lesson for them (the students) in terms of agreement patterns in Latin, but also for them to understand that Latin has many uses in the modern world.”
In yet another attempt to get outsiders excited about beetles, Chaboo organized that naming competition in conjunction with the Amazon Conservation Association. It gave Peruvians and Americans the chance to submit name suggestions for one of the new beetle species Chaboo and her team discovered in Peru, a beetle she described as the tiniest beetle in the world, “smaller than a pinhead.”
A name for this minuscule beetle has been chosen, Chaboo said, but won’t be announced for a few more months.
A naming competition for another Chaboo-discovered beetle should be announced around mid-May online at amazonconservation.org, she said.
Insects are critical pieces of the world’s ecosystem, even though they are small and widely unknown, she said. Especially with pieces of the ecosystem in danger - gold mining and deforestation are threatening species in her Peruvian research area - what happens far away can affect everyone, she said.
“We should care for the fundamental role these factors contribute to our Earth’s health and global climate,” she said. “But we should also pay attention to how our daily choices might impact a beetle in the Amazon.”
While rainforests may be exceptionally ecologically diverse, Chaboo reminds that just as she realized in Trinidad, you can probably find more beetles and other animal species than you ever realized in your own backyard, even in Kansas.
“We don’t have to go to Peru to learn about nature and have fun in nature,” she said.
Information from: Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World, https://www.ljworld.com
Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC.