Sometimes it's the people you least expect that make the biggest discoveries. Such is the case with one undergraduate student from the University of Kansas.
Rachel Smith, an undergraduate majoring in ecology and evolutionary biology, was performing fieldwork in South America in Venezuela, Suriname and Guyana when she came across all together 18 new species of aquatic beetles. The aquatic water beetles were from the genus Chasmogenus and included one beetle completely unknown to science.
The find was especially impressive since a lot of the beetles' differences were not visible to the human eye. "Something unique and fascinating about this genus, particularly the ones I worked on, is that many look almost exactly the same," said Smith in a statement.
"Even to my trained eye, it's hard to tell them apart just based on external morphology. Their uniqueness is in there but kind of hidden in this very uniform external morphology."
To identify the different species, Smith used DNA. Still, this was not enough. The undergraduate student had to also dissect the beetles and examine their inner anatomy in particular their male genitalia.
Smith revealed she performed over 100 dissections to examine the beetles' male genitalia under a microscope.
"That really was the true way to tell them apart. Ultimately, it came down to male genitalia and genetic divergence that I used to delimit many of these species," explained Smith.
Two years of work
Finding all these beetles was no easy task and took two years of dedicated work. Smith described how every day she had to find her way through the rainforest because there were no trails.
The undergraduate and her team would search for small, slow-moving or stagnant pools to look for beetles. The insects were usually found in ponds that were still and had dead leaves and mud.
"You definitely have to get dirty to do this work, but it's very satisfying," added Smith.
Satisfying indeed! Smith's co-author and faculty mentor Andrew Short, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and associate curator with KU's Biodiversity Institute, who co-wrote the new paper, said the find is incredible for any scientist much more for a mere undergraduate student. Bravo Smith!
The study is published in the peer-reviewed journal ZooKeys.