The widening of the Panama Canal currently underway has created a rare opportunity to study the insects that inhabit the plants of environmentally sensitive Central American rain forest habitats. Dr. Amy Berkov, Professor of Biology at The City College of New York (CCNY), is leading a research effort that could shed new light on biodiversity by documenting the area's host-plant relationships.
"If you want to study biodiversity and conservation, you need to know what animals eat and where they live, even when those animals are insects," said Professor Berkov. "For concealed feeders that spend their immature stages feeding within plant tissues, where they live and what they eat are the samebut the insects are not easy to find."
The canal expansion project, which will raise the level of Lago Gatun, requires trees and other plants on eight headlands or islands that jut into the canal to be cut down. Professor Berkov and her colleague, Dr. Hector Barrios, were able to persuade the Panama Canal Authority and other agencies to permit them to collect samples from a one-hectare plot before the bulldozers began to uproot the trees.
"We're trying to collect woody species trees and vines to find out what wood-boring species inhabit these plants," she said. "There are not many opportunities to work where a lot of trees are going to be destroyed anyhow." Dr. Grard Luc Tavakilian, a French entomologist who worked in French Guiana, conducted the only similar study in the early 1990s, and documented host-plant associations for 347 beetle species.
The beetles of interest to the project spend their larval stages under the bark of the plants. "To get the host-plant association, you can't just collect adults from plant surfaces, because that won't tell you where the larvae live," explained Professor Berkov. "You can't get this information by collecting larvae either because they are too difficult to identify. However, it is possible to r
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City College of New York