Hi everyone,

We are two Field Biologists who have spent the past several years conducting research in the Amazon Rainforest. We have backgrounds in entomology (the scientific study of insects) and recently collaborated on the new discovery of a butterfly that appears to mimic ants and steals their food, which was recently featured in National Geographic - http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/06/amazon-butterflies-ants-insects-stealing/ and we put together a video about the new publication - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BrPWAQR-Rb8

We’ve been on numerous expeditions in the jungles of South America to conduct research and seek out new, bizarre creatures. In addition, we believe strongly in communicating science and have contributed to outlets like The BBC, National Geographic, Wired, Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, and many more.

We have also been involved in several cool discoveries and stories such as:

We wanted to take this opportunity to share our experiences as scientists working in the rainforest and look forward to your questions!

Questions answered with -P are Phil, and with -A are Aaron

Proof: Twitter Account @Phil_Torres & @AaronPomerantz

You can find more of our rainforest science videos here:

www.YouTube.com/c/TheJungleDiaries -Phil

www.YouTube.com/c/NextGenScientistDiscover -Aaron

Edit: Holy cow, thanks for all the amazing questions & comments everyone! We're going to continue to work our way through and hopefully get around to all of them.

-Your friendly neighborhood bug guys

Comments: 916 • Responses: 85  • Date: 

explicitlarynx748 karma

As a former user of Windows 10 I'm familiar with the idea of discovering new bugs all the time.

My question to you: how often does it happen that one of the bugs you find has never been found before? Also: how do you name them?

furcula_it323 karma

It happens surprisingly often if you look for the right group. There are ~1 million known species of insects, and by some estimates another ~29 million left to go! So if you're in the tropics and looking for an obscure group that not a lot of people have studied (ants, beetles, flies, parasitoids, etc) you actually have a pretty high chance of finding a new species in a single day out there.

But finding them is one thing, naming them is where the real expertise comes in. You have to do genetic work, dissect and draw male genitalia, and compare to other known species. Then do a big write up. This takes most people 1-3 years to do, but the average shelf-life for a new species being found is 21 years, so that's 21 years of sitting in a museum collection before someone gives it a name. We need more taxonomists and systematists! -P

Magicteapotbeliever242 karma

I used to draw dicks in text books all the time. I should be doing what you do and getting paid.

AK_Happy51 karma

Bug dicks?

RoastMaster9417 karma

Bugs have dicks?

furcula_it84 karma

Relevant - one of our entomologist friends at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum described 30 new fly species by looking at their genitalia http://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-new-flies-la-20150326-story.html -A

TheAryanBrotherhood16 karma

How does that mean they're different species?

I mean, every dude has a different looking dick, but does that make us all a different species?

furcula_it127 karma

It's all relative my friend! Your 'dude parts' look more similar to my 'dude parts' than our 'dude parts' look to, say, a chimpanzee's 'dude parts' (hopefully). Genitalia are just one of the morphological characteristics scientists can use to differentiate between species. -A

bruce6569 karma

How is the estimate of ~29 million undiscovered species made?

furcula_it50 karma

It's very difficult to know the unknown, so take the numbers with a grain of salt. Erwin threw out the high-end estimate of ~30 million based on some rough canopy fogging extrapolations. Other estimates are more conservative in the 5-10 million range. This study from a few years ago says about 8.7 million. The conclusion to draw is: there is so much diversity of unknown organisms on this planet and we have no idea what they are or what they're doing! -A

Hippydippy4206 karma

Are there any scientific words used to describe their genitalia used in their names? Like big-dicked-beetle but in scientific lingo?

furcula_it9 karma

In male insects, the structure analogous to a penis is known as the "aedeagus"!

The more you knowwwwwwwww -A

furcula_it51 karma

I just want to ditto some of what Phil said - there are potentially 5-30 million arthropod species that have yet to be described. It's insane! Humans have done a good job cataloging most of the big critters, but the smaller majority is largely unknown, especially in the tropics. So we likely see bugs that haven't been officially described often, like small mites and flies - the challenge is that it is a long process to formally describe and name a new critter and usually takes a highly specialized taxonomist for that particular group of animals. -A

Zykium581 karma

Can you identify all the bugs Timon and Pumba eat in The Lion King?

furcula_it707 karma

Important question. They took some liberties with their illustrations, but in general the bright beetles are called Pleasing Fungus Beetles, Erotylidae and many of the wormy looking things are either worms, or scarab beetle larvae -Phil

BigGrayBeast190 karma

Love that they answered that.

Tkent91112 karma

Well as he said it is an important question.

furcula_it233 karma

We recently ate huge beetle grubs in Ecuador http://i.imgur.com/xMnJJEg.png - long story short, they weren't as tasty as Lion King made them look. -A

japasthebass66 karma

I'm not super interested in this subject but damn if this isn't one of the best AMA's ive ever seen

furcula_it142 karma

We're comin for you vacuum repair AMA guy! -A

briaen149 karma

With the amount of bugs already cataloged, how can you be sure when you find a new one? I can't imagine someone can identify every single bug that's ever been cataloged.

Also, how do you name it once you are sure it's new.

furcula_it224 karma

That is a FANTASTIC question! Typically it takes a highly specialized expert for a particular group (i.e. a taxonomist) to immediately recognize if something is new. To answer your question, a lot of times I don't really know if what I'm looking at is just new to me, or if it is actually new to science. So I take a lot of high quality photos and video, and collect samples in the field so I can do my homework when I return to the states and get opinions from other experts in the field. For instance, when I found this new butterfly/parasitic plant relationship (http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/12/151203-caterpillar-ant-parasitic-plant-Peru-science-evolution/), I did not know if it was new at the time, it was only until after I got back and spoke with other butterfly professionals and botanists that we found it was a new discovery. Additionally, I use genetics to help us determine if something is new or not, and molecular tools are showing us that some of these critters could indeed be new species (more to come on that soon). -A

DigiMagic97 karma

How advanced are neural systems of bugs? Are they more like simple automatons that have predefined responses to stimulation and that's it, or do they have thoughts, emotions, dreams?

If life based on methane instead of water turns out to be possible, how do you think bugs on Titan might look like?

furcula_it131 karma

Arguably humans have more complex neural systems (100 billion neurons in our brains versus about 100 thousand neurons in the fruit fly brain) but it's tough to answer even simple questions like "Do insects feel pain?". (Our friend Jake from Relax I'm an Entomologist did a nice write up on the insect pain debate). I often hear people say "oh insects are simple and just genetically programmed like robots to do this or that" but I think that's far too oversimplified. Arthropods display an extremely wide range of seemingly complex behaviors, so I think it's in large part human-bias that they are "simple" compared to us. But since insect brains have less neurons to work with, they can actually make fantastic models to study human neurological disorders like Parkinsons disease. Long story short, brains are hard to study in action (even for us humans) so it's tough to say if insects can have emotions/dreams. Insects likely have less cognitive abilities than us, but I think there's more to them than many of us give credit right now. -A

justscottaustin95 karma

Ok, I will ask what we are all thinking. What are the scariest moments out in the remote areas that you have had in 3 categories: animal, nature (weather, landslide, etc), and people?

furcula_it174 karma

Scariest moments -

Animal: One night I was looking at bioluminescent beetles in the jungle and had my headlamp off to see them glowing. When I turned my headlamp back on and looked up, I was at eye-level with a fer-de-lance pit viper, one of the deadliest snakes in South America. That was probably the most dangerous animal I've been that unwittingly close to.

Nature: We need to travel by boat on the rivers in order to get to our remote field sites. Fortunately we work with amazing locals who drive the boats and use seemingly superhuman powers to navigate safely through the murky water, but even still I've been in close encounters to the boat hitting a log/rock and flipping over. I know of some of the locals who have drowned in Amazonian rivers, so it is a definite risk if your boat flips.

People: Fortunately I've thus far had nothing but safe experiences in Peru and Ecuador with the people. Im not really that worried about people when I'm out in the jungle because it's so remote but I do worry about crime in big cities in South America (then again, I worry about people in big cities everywhere including parts of LA).

-Aaron

corik_starr15 karma

How did you react to the fer-de-lance?

furcula_it55 karma

A moment of panic, followed by curiosity, followed by taking pictures. -A

NickJrAllDay15 karma

Would you happen to have the pictures still?

furcula_it149 karma

Weather: Scariest thing in the Amazon? Big ass trees. I was a mile out in the field on my own -not a good idea- and it suddenly got dark, and I heard what sounded like a train approaching. It was a storm. It got so windy that ~2000 lbs trees were leaning and cracking around me as I ran back, and two hundred pound branches dropping from above. I literally had to duck under a huuuuge tree as it fell across the trail. It was insanely scary. Snakes, jaguars? Nothing. Big ass trees landing everywhere around you? Terrifying. It took the reserve managers a couple weeks to get the trails back to normal, they had to chain-saw gaps through the big ones that fell.

Animal: The first time I encountered a jaguar at night. We were off trail by about 500m deep in the rainforest, and we first startled a large mammal, maybe a deer, which definitely scared the heck out of us in the dark and then my teammate saw a jaguar. We were told the jaguars were all hunted out of that area so weren't expecting to see it, and we were worried we interrupted its hunting. We were kind of idiots, not realizing jaguars are just curious cats and not too interested in a group of 6 loud humans with bright lights on their heads. Was a fun rush.

People: My first field expedition I was 19 and in Venezuela. We wanted to set up a black light on someone's property to attract insects at night. So, we went to them with a bottle of rum as a gift and asked for permission. We should have given them the rum after. They got drunk and forgot who we were, we heard gun shots then they approached us angry with rifles. It was scary but we talked them out of it. I also had 4 guys try to mug me in Quito on the way to the field but fought them off. I feel waaay safer in the rainforest than in the cities where I work. -Phil

Atalanhero89 karma

Have you guy run into any insects that have something like a new sense? Like some that have sensory organs to feel vibration as an example.

furcula_it223 karma

Our recent discovery involves a very interesting group of caterpillars in the family Riodinidae. A scientist found that these caterpillars can "sing" to attract ants - the ants hear them and rush to protect them from predators, which is a fascinating symbiosis called myrmecophily. So there are probably many more examples of insect "senses" that we have yet to uncover. -A

furcula_it93 karma

Totally! Some parasitoid wasps are thought to have vibration sensors in their feet, so when they walk on old rotting wood they can detect where a beetle grub is inside. Then, they jab their long ovipositor (egg-layer) into the wood which also has vibration detectors, and can inject one or several of their eggs right into the larvae. Pretty nuts. Spiders, too, generally hunt by vibration to tell them where their prey is rather than vision. -P

Myceliated68 karma

do you ever play the slug bug game with your colleagues? except instead of VW bugs you play it with actual bugs?

furcula_it94 karma

THIS IS A GREAT IDEA. -P

E_Kristalin49 karma

In case you had some kind of contact with the people living in the rainforest that have minimal/no contact with the outside world. How close does the reality of living in the amazonian rainforest match how most people imagine it? EDIT: also, do you have pictures of the most beautifull/weird insect(s) you discovered?

furcula_it146 karma

Living in the Amazon is always rustic, to say the least. All of your electronics get attacked by the humidity or ants, you often have no or little internet, your clothes smell, you've been scratched and bitten, you come back from the field covered in mud, you see some crazy giant spider or snake or amazing frog, you get rained on (it's the rainforest). Every day you see something new, work really really hard, and learn a bit more about the patterns of life out there.

As for how people imagine it- there aren't tons of jaguars roaming around stalking you (I've seen 7 over a few years, not stalking me of course ;) and I've only swung on jungle vines maybe 15 times. But it is awesome every time. -P

reflythis17 karma

Follow up to above... And how often have you found yourself in a dangerous or potentially dangerous situation with the indigenous?

furcula_it117 karma

Never really with indigenous. I've been in the Intangible Zone of Ecuador with the Waorani, they have been in contact with the western world for maybe 50 years now though the people I visited still hunt with blow guns and spears. Very happy, laughing people but our main guy we were visiting had killed 19 people over the years from rival tribes. Around that yasuni area of Ecuador there are some tribes who have remained uncontacted, and I was told that if they saw me they would likely try to kill me. We stayed out of that area not from fear, though it is scary, but for respect, as they have every right to be who they want to be and continue to live in that forest as they have for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. -P

amandapillar34 karma

Hey guys! Thanks for doing the AMA! I'm a senior currently studying Entomology at the University of Delaware. My question is: after college, what was your general path to get to where you are now? I'm still struggling to decide where I want to go with my major, but I love what you guys do!

furcula_it33 karma

Glad to hear from a fellow entomology major! This kind of path was totally unexpected and not planned to be honest. I've bounced around with wanting to do different stuff with entomology, from academia, to USDA jobs, to biotech companies. I'd say that for me, having a background in molecular biology helps because no matter what you do with a career in biology, genetics will be involved to some degree these days. I'm planning to pursue a Ph.D. and continue with photography, science communication, etc. so my advice is just keep trying to be the best in your particular field of interest. -A

SoulStealingGinger25 karma

I have two questions:

1) How did you decide on where to explore new bugs? Like why the Amazon over places like Africa or Asia?

2) How do you approach the bugs so as to limit the risk of being bitten and such without knowing if they're poisonous?

furcula_it41 karma

I have two answers: 1) My dad's family is from Nicaragua, so I was drawn at a young age to conserve latin american rainforests and see the blue morpho butterfly. I eventually gained most experience down there and still feel the most useful and knowledgeable in the Amazon or Central America. But I'm eager to get involved in other projects on other continents, for sure! -p

2) Generally they'll fly away from you first, or you just photograph first, stick in a bag second. I guess I've never really been worried about this, sometimes you get stung by ants or the occasional wasp but in general I feel pretty safe. Snakes, a different story of being aware of what is venomous in the region. -P

furcula_it21 karma

Good question, one of the cool things about studying insects is that they are pretty much everywhere!

1) I first went to the Amazon when I was wrapping up a Master's degree at the University of Florida. Phil had synced up with other scientists at UF who I was mutual friends with, which is why I went to Peru to do some follow-up work on the Decoy Spiders at a place called the Tambopata Research Center. I'd love to go to other places like Africa or Asia to do fieldwork :)

2) Since we've studied insects and spiders or some time, we have a pretty good idea of how to approach/handle them and which are more dangerous than others. For instance, the bullet ants and wandering spiders are probably the more dangerous jungle encounters.

-A

Flipperty-Nibbert22 karma

Cool AMA! Is catching insects like those first scenes in the movie Arachnophobia where they smoke out the trees and catch insects in giant bowls? And has a large insect looked dead and then flown at your face?

furcula_it45 karma

What they did in Arachnophobia (which I love btw) is an old insecticide fogging technique, basically blasting a tree in the rainforest with toxic chemicals and seeing what dies and drops down. This is what a lot of scientists did back in the day, but I'd imagine it's less common now because it's likely dangerous and destructive to the environment. Yes, I've poked at seemingly dead spiders and wasps and they happen to then jump/fly directly at your face haha. -A

linkankit18 karma

Thanks for an interesting AMA! I remember the very cool Smarter Everyday video in the Amazon.

When you go into the Amazon, or any rainforest, how do the eyes of a field biologist perceive flora and fauna? Do you have a specific methodology, or a set of instructions you personally follow? Or do you go with the flow, the more you explore?

furcula_it29 karma

This is such a good question and glad you enjoyed the Smarter Every Day vid!. I love constantly honing vision out there. One rule is you look for what is weird. How do you learn what is weird and not the norm? Walk around, a lot. After hundreds or thousands of hours of walking in the Amazon on surveys, you pick up distinct characteristics of what makes something unusual. You don't know it until you see it. Another rule of thumb is you kind of train your search pattern for what you're looking for- slimy or scaley for reptiles and amphibians, bright and dangly for spiders on webs at night, or movement/pattern that doesn't quite fit with the background for many insects or camouflaged groups. You look at every surface of leaf, ground, bark, rock, imaginable and up,down, left, right and start to know what you'll expect to find in each zone. -P

furcula_it7 karma

I'd say my perception has changed in the sense that I can spot certain critters that I normally would have overlooked in the past. I think our brains are able to pick out certain patterns and once you see it, it's stuck. I never really noticed caterpillar-ant relationships that much, but now that we've made two new discoveries (here and here) for this group, I spot more of these types of caterpillars in the field. -A

FredR5315 karma

Will you name one after me? My name is Fred.

furcula_it39 karma

SgtKashim14 karma

When you find the bugs, will you please patch them? :F

On a more serious note - if you find a new bug, do you have a plan for how you'll name it?

furcula_it11 karma

I'm working on a butterfly that, after doing some genetic work, could be a new species. Since animals have binomial nomenclature it would likely keep its genus name and then potentially we would come up with the species-level name. More updates to come on that one :) -A

mack-megaton14 karma

Are there insects, even with your experience, that terrify you?

furcula_it38 karma

Yup. There wandering spider gives me the willies every time, but I still can laugh about it. It is fairly venomous, supposed to be very painful, and can cause a condition in men called a priapism. It is the one animal I've seen that lunges, runs, jumps at you some times if you disturb it, rather than running away, hiding, or just getting defensive. But usually I have it coming, I'm getting in close for a photo or something. You can see one of my photos here. -P

furcula_it13 karma

Not an insect, but centipedes in the jungle are big, venomous, and FAST! So yeah, those are a bit terrifying. -A

Brodusgus11 karma

What red flag is there that a bug is poisonous?

furcula_it35 karma

Bright colors, hairs, spines is your best signal that you shouldn't touch or eat them. But some cheat and look like they're poisonous with the colors but really aren't- birds take that risk eating them sometimes but I won't! -P

furcula_it25 karma

In nerd talk, it's called Aposematism and Batesian Mimicry :P

-A

ApoSupes10 karma

Can you link us to all the videos where you're exploring the jungle shirtless?

furcula_it23 karma

Nice try, mosquito! -A

goodnewsjimdotcom10 karma

Do you think we'll find more antibiotics and cures in nature like we found with mold?

furcula_it15 karma

Absolutely, 100% yes. It is tricky to do in a financially sustainable way because it takes so long for antibiotics to be approved, but as a research area it is sooo important and still happening today.

furcula_it3 karma

Most definitely. When it comes to bacteria, most are unknown because they can't be easily cultured so there are likely compounds out there that could have a wide range of medicinal properties. Same goes of chemicals produced by insects/spiders/scorpions, etc. -A

Graciejj239 karma

What level of education did it take to become a field biologist? And what kind of college classes would be beneficial for this career? This is the career I'm looking to go towards during college because I love travel and I love science!

furcula_it20 karma

At least undergrad for basic field jobs, masters for more advanced, or PhD for others! I actually only have an undergrad degree but I work mostly on the education/media side of nature now. Learning spanish gave me great opportunities to get in the field above my piers that didn't know spanish, so learn another language and you're more useful! Also try to specialize with what you can with electives in college. At Cornell I was able to take a lot of entomology classes which was awesome, and a vertebrates class where I got to dissect sharks and stuff. I miss those classes.

Other useful things to learn- statistics, genetics, programming. Good luck! -P

slevdawg8 karma

Why are the bees dying?

furcula_it7 karma

Great question, and not a simple one to answer but I'll make a couple comments. People like to point a finger at one thing and say that's why they're all dying! but the truth is, honey bees in particular face population declines due to a combination of factors including, but not limited to: poor nutrition/decline in natural areas due to agriculture/urbanization, parasites like the Varroa mite, pesticide exposure, and pathogens. A couple good resources are this TED Talk and some of our friends produced this brilliant documentary called 'A Ghost in the Making' about native bee species at risk. -A

LemonEyeDrops7 karma

This is actually really awesome what you guys are doing! I was wondering though, how does one get into doing this? Also, if you discover a new species of insect, who gets to name it?

furcula_it8 karma

There are various ways of getting involved in fieldwork like this. Some people find volunteering opportunities (at the Tamboapta Research Center you can volunteer to be a macaw research for several months at a time). I went more of an academic/research route and joined a university colleague on an expedition. If you think you've found a new species, there's a long process of officially describing it and submitting it to a scientific publication while abiding by the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature http://www.nhm.ac.uk/hosted-sites/iczn/code/ -A

Littlemilkybb7 karma

How did you two get started? As someone Interested in discovering new species what can I do to find organizations that fund young scientists to do this? Thanks!

furcula_it15 karma

I grew up in Los Angeles, so a big thing for me (and thanks to my parents) was seeking out things like botanical gardens and natural history museums to spark my interest in nature growing up. To try and fund yourself, you can apply for grants/fellowships to organizations like National Geographic (which I recently did), Smithsonian, organizations like the Entomological Society of America, your University (if you're at one), etc. -A

SputtleTuts7 karma

Can you name a species after me? I'll give ya a dolla

furcula_it21 karma

Make it tree fiddy -A

animalsarebetter6 karma

Hey Phil,

We've chatted before in the past - I'm that animal-obsessed girl who runs www.FeaturedCreature.com. I've been following your travels for some time now, and I'm always so impressed with what you discover - and how you can share that information so well with the world! I feel like you're making such a large contribution to not only the entomology world, but the science community as a whole.

My question is - what's the strangest bug you've ever found? Was it something "new" or had it been previously identified?

Also - could I potentially interview you for my site sometime? :)

furcula_it6 karma

Hi! For sure we can set up an interview, DM me on twitter.

Strangest has got to be the decoy spider we discovered- which makes a bigger fake spider in its web from scratch. One of them actually used the leg of another, larger spider as one if its 'fake' legs in the web, which was mind blowing. -P

GnomishProtozoa6 karma

Bulbasaur, Charmander, or Squirtle?

furcula_it12 karma

Charmander you filthy casual! -A

fnerrrf6 karma

How does global climate change affect the ecosystems you work in and the bug buddies you study? Do you anticipate there being major changes in field biology as we start to see more drastic environmental changes related to anthropogenic climate change?

furcula_it7 karma

Climate change is definitely a primary concern in areas like the tropics. We anticipate major changes in disease outbreaks, because vectors like mosquitoes can expand their environmental range as temperatures warm (think Zika, Malaria, Yellow Fever, etc). On the flip side, insects that have adapted to climates like mountain ranges may increasingly go extinct, because they have nowhere to go as temperatures rise. -A

throwawayravenclaw5 karma

Could you please name the next one you find Norwayisthebest?

furcula_it19 karma

My girlfriend is Norwegian, I think she'd like that. I'll see what I can do ;) -P

FryBurg5 karma

How did you start out? I don't know a single person who graduated college and could just start exploring the world, we are all in a huge amount of crippling debt that doesn't allow for a job that doesnt make atleast $150 every day.

furcula_it15 karma

Still in debt, yes. I understand partially how hard it can be, I was lucky my parents helped me pay things like health insurance and let me crash with them for a couple months in between work. But I also know I was quite lucky in many opportunities (heck, I even won some money on a game show to keep me afloat). I sold my car/mattress to take my first job in the field in Ecuador which paid $150 per week. But I knew, or hoped, the experience would be irreplaceable and it eventually ead me to get admitted into a PhD program, and even host television shows about science. Also, these explorations are often funded by grants- National Geographic, the National Science Foundation, etc. Most scientists work on a grant-to-grant basis to fund their work and hope the money never runs dry. I was lucky enough to be part of some other scientists' grants while an undergrad to do my traveling, and many of my travels since then have been as part of my job.

So, I first started out by tagging along with others and making myself useful, then taking a financial risk myself, then turning all of that into a career that takes my background exploring and puts it to use. I have a job for now traveling and doing what I love, but always feel fortunate and know it may come to an end some day. -P

furcula_it4 karma

To expand on that, I think it takes a lot of hustle, creativity, and a willingness to be more like a freelancer. This is also a reason, for me at least, I try to stay up to date with the cutting edge research/technology, publish papers, apply for grants, try to get better at photography / writing / hosting / producing videos, etc. I'm starting a Ph.D. this fall and hope to continue with this type of fieldwork / outreach but getting a higher education is not the end-all solution to employment these days. -A

Caitienall5 karma

Are you self employed or what organization do you work for? Also how did you come across that job. As an environmental science major my biggest concern is actually getting a job in my field haha paycheck doesn't matter so much

furcula_it7 karma

The job market for scientists (especially biology/environment related fields) is depressing to say the least. I'd say one thing that helps is I try to keep up with research and publishing, which allows me to apply for grant funding from organizations like National Geographic. We do a lot of freelancing and outreach for TV and media which helps but is not super consistent work. We also get to work with the Tambopata Research Center which is really supportive and helps us do fieldwork in Southeastern Peru. The answer is, there's no formula to "make it" in any given field, whether it's academia, industry, or government. Just be the best you can be in your area of expertise and try to pick up as many skills as you can. -A

aptmnt_5 karma

Are ants just a kind of for-hire workforce of the entomological world? It seems like their numbers, industriousness, and simple "programming" led to many symbiotic or parasitic species "hacking" their behaviour to their benefit (like the larvae that sing for help you wrote about below). Are there more inter-species symbiotic relationships involving ants than with any other single animal?

furcula_it3 karma

Ants most certainly have a lot of symbiotic partners (maybe the most like you mention but I'm not sure atm) - check out Alex Wild's gallery on ant associates if you get the chance, it's beautiful - http://www.alexanderwild.com/Ants/Natural-History/Insect-Symbionts/ -A

dcescott5 karma

When I think of the Amazon Rainforest, the movie Romancing the Stone comes in mind. Ever run across plane wreckage with precious cargo?

furcula_it19 karma

PLEASE one of these days I want to find some buried treasure. If you get any leads, let me know. Aaron checked out an old abandoned field station once, I'll let him answer about that. It looked awesome, the rainforest has no mercy on abandoned buildings or equipment. -P

Random-Miser5 karma

I saw THIS documentary a while back, and it really gave me a new found respect for the type of work you guys do, and the risks you guys take, keep up the good work.

furcula_it4 karma

No joke, that, um, documentary made me seriously afraid of spiders. It wasn't until working in Ecuador at the age of ~24 that I got over it, and now study them and love them and even call them cute sometimes. -P

kbowman194 karma

What keeps you motivated out in the field? Is the excitement of finding new and interesting insects enough to keep you going or do you have any special ways with coping with an extreme environment?

furcula_it7 karma

There are some days I wake up out there and don't want to go explore. And I tell myself, ok, just grab your camera and go for a little walk, you'll probably find something interesting. And yeah, every single day you see something new and the walk was worth it. The excitement, the opportunities of finding something new or finding another rare specimen, you're like on a treasure hunt trying to solve something that no one has drawn a map to.

But yeah, seriously the excitement of finding something new has kept me up at night out there and definitely gets me out the door. Also, photography gave me a skill to work on and improve ways to catalog what we were seeing. -P

JennLegend34 karma

I really wish I had a cool question but they've all been asked.

So what do you guys do for fun in the jungle? Like do you play games? You should start to make up a secret language. What do you miss the most when you're working in the rainforest?

furcula_it6 karma

I really miss pizza when I'm out there for a while (chicken and rice can get old fast). I really enjoy trying to improve my photography skills so I try to teach myself new techniques while out in the field. When not out "sciencing" it's nice to kick it with a cold cervesa and get to know the people you're around - not having cell phone reception / internet out in the field is actually really nice and I think allows you to get to know people better. -A

furcula_it6 karma

When I was in the rainforests of Ecuador for a year I would actually dream of hamburgers and donuts. So I missed those.

We would play a guitar and sing, have the occasional warm beer and bonfire, and just chat. Often times 16-18 hour work days, so not too much time for that kind of fun, keeping busy. But honestly the job was a blast, so it is fun most of the time. -P

cooneyes4 karma

Have you ever discovered a bug that masturbates?

furcula_it9 karma

Nope but if you're into kinky insect stuff then this Wired article is right up your alley -A

Advicefromadistance4 karma

What would be a perfect field day for you?

furcula_it17 karma

Oh man, a perfect field day is when I'm with a team of other passionate biologists and we're all pumped to find something new. Sometimes, even when you don't necessarily find what you're looking for, it's still a perfect day because you're just happy to be out in a beautiful rainforest. Here's an album from our recent trip to Ecuador which was like that http://imgur.com/a/y7JUJ

legatus-dt3 karma

I found a very strange bug after it spent about 10 minutes trying to headbutt its way into my bedroom window in the middle of the night.

What would be your advice on trying to figure out what something is if you don't recognise it? Is there an online database with all the known bugs and ways to identify them? I sadly don't have a picture but would recognise it instantly if I saw it again.

furcula_it7 karma

Reddit WhatsThisBug https://www.reddit.com/r/whatsthisbug/ and BugGuide.net http://bugguide.net/node/view/15740 are fantastic ID resources. When we're stumped on an identification we turn to these outlets sometimes and the community members are very knowledgeable. -A

jman36933 karma

What are the chances of the average person living in an urban area to come across an undiscovered bug? I've seen some pretty weird mutant-looking bugs land on my window that I had never seen before...

furcula_it3 karma

Honestly, you've probably seen one without knowing it, and it was probably very tiny. The Natural History Museum in LA recently did an amazing project where they found 30 new species of flies in 30 days, and that's just the beginning of their work. Check out Aaron's video of it here. -P

imtheproof3 karma

What's your way of dealing with sand flies?

furcula_it3 karma

Covering up! 30% DEET on exposed surfaces, it's the best you can do. And knowing the time of day they are most active, usually right before sunset. -P

Googly-MOggly3 karma

What's the shittiest experience you've had in the jungle?

furcula_it19 karma

Getting a stomach parasite. I was told one of the signs is that your, umm, flatulence smells so bad it literally wakes you up at night. This happened to me, so got on the bus into the nearest town and went to the pharmacy. Amazingly, three pills in a day and I was cured.

I assume that's what you meant by shittiest :) -P

pastrypalace3 karma

I never realized that you guys had figured out what the weird web tower structure was. I read the article and saw that it was determined to be a spider. Did you ever figure out what kind it was?

Also, I hate spiders, any suggestions to get rid of this fear?

furcula_it3 karma

We recently found more of these odd web towers in Ecuador and documented three spiderlings hatching out of one! Still don't know the species but are working on some genetic analyses to help answer that question. -A

kbowman193 karma

I'm an aspiring entomologist who would love to do field work. How did you guys get to the positions that you're in and how hard was it? Are many internships or entry level positions available? You guys are kind of my heroes, and definitely my future goals. It can be hard to be a woman in the science fields, and doing field work is no different

furcula_it9 karma

So cool to hear! I know so many bad ass women in the field, look up Dr. Susan Finkbeiner and send her a tweet asking for advice. The biggest thing that set my career in motion as an undergrad was applying for REUs, Research Experience for Undergrads. It is a summer job with an amazing scientist designed for undergrads to get experience, mine took me to Mongolia for field work.

Also find entomologists on twitter, there are sooo many good ones to communicate with and get advice from.

It is hard to do, but I was also honest with myself after a few years of trying to do systematics, I realized I was better at educating about bugs than publishing all the time. So I now work in science media and do the occasional publication and love it. -P

editingredditor3 karma

Why did you choose bugs for your field?

furcula_it7 karma

I knew by 6th grade it was entomology or bust- there was a researcher (Dr. Andy Warren) who taught me how to collect and study butterflies and he was always traveling the world discovering new species and running around crazy environments meeting new people. When I heard that was a possible job I was like COUNT ME IN. Bugs have more species diversity, which means more behavioral diversity. So if you want to be good at studying animal behavior (like I do), study bugs first, the other groups of animals almost seem easy. -P

furcula_it6 karma

I always knew I wanted to do some form of biological science. When I was in third grade I told my teachers that when I grew up, I wanted to be a herpetologist, paleontologist, or entomologist (so I guess one panned out!). I actually thought of going the vet school route but was drawn to the entomology department at UC Riverside and became fascinated by insects - they are the most diverse group of animals on the planet and impact our lives in SO MANY WAYS! Pollination, disease transmission, genetic studies, agriculture, the list goes on. It's an incredibly cool field and I feel like I'll never be done learning about these little critters. -A

Isares2 karma

What is the most intersting adaptation you've seen in an insect?

Are there any habitats you've always wanted to explore but haven't gotten around to yet?

As the environmental crisis proceeds, do you think we'll get to see some insect species evolving to give rise to entirely new species within the span of a human lifetime? It might be a silver lining in the whole mess.

furcula_it3 karma

I think the ant-caterpillar adaptions are really interesting. Also, moths that can jam the sonar of bats - that's a totally badass adaptation. So many habitats I want to explore, like the giant rainforest inside a cave in Vietnam. Some insects are quite good at adapting to human environments, like cockroaches, bed bugs, mosquitoes - so not quite sure if that's a silver lining haha -A

gokatgo2 karma

Do you have to be careful when swatting bugs on you neck?

furcula_it6 karma

Yep! You don't swat, you flick off. I once had a reasonably deadly spider- called the wandering spider- land on my neck and it can cause priapisms. That would have been real bad. Luckily you train yourself over time to not smash things into your skin which could cause them to bite you, instead you flick or fling them off. -P

two_off2 karma

Have you had any dangerous encounters with groups doing illegal things and wanting to make sure you stay silent?

furcula_it13 karma

In Hollywood, CA I ran into some dudes selling cocaine in the bathroom and they gave me a look, so it can happen anywhere. Fortunately in the field I've been lucky to avoid that, and that is mostly intentional with logistics to avoid areas that are a health and safety risk, and have protocols in case it does happen. -P

furcula_it5 karma

Notice how the most dangerous encounter so far was in Los Angeles and not anywhere South America ;) people often ask if our fieldwork in the jungle is dangerous but personally I think big cities pose a higher risk (getting hit by a car, shot, etc). -A

albiore2 karma

Do you guys have a favorite family or genus? (does not have to be only within lepidoptera)

furcula_it8 karma

I REALLY like bugs that glow. Within the beetles (Coleoptera) bioluminescence has evolved three independent times in three families: The Lampyridae (fireflies), Elateridae (click beetles), and Phengodidae (railroad worms). Luciferin FTW! -A

albiore3 karma

Any particular reason why you have furcula as your tag? Big fan of Collembola perhaps haha? Anyways you guys are such a great inspiration for a budding fellow entomologist!

furcula_it3 karma

Glad someone got the reference! One of my buddies took an entomology class and told me to 'go furcula myself', thus inspiring the name. -A

venkiro2 karma

How hard would it be for someone that didn't have a recognized degree to do what you guys do if they just had that much interest in it? Would there be resentment or disbelief in their findings from the general community because they weren't classically trained?

furcula_it3 karma

There are many "amateur" scientists/entomologists out there who are brilliant and make their own discoveries. I wouldn't disbelieve someone just because they lacked a degree as long as they proved what they did, perhaps through an experiment or going through a peer-reviewed journal. On the flip side, I wouldn't flat out believe someone just because they DO have a prestigious degree - they need to prove themselves too. Trust no one! -A

SquigBoss2 karma

How long are you guys out in the field for? Like, how long will it be before you return to civilization at a time?

furcula_it2 karma

Each trip is different and can range from a few weeks to well over a month. Towards the end of a really long expedition last year I started screaming at caterpillars so maybe that was an indication I should return to civilization. -A

1Nah2 karma

Hi guys, what was your most recent discovery?

JiberybobX1 karma

Does anyone make any crap puns about your job and if so, do they bug you?

furcula_it5 karma

Buzz off

beckyfull1 karma

What is the daily life of a field researcher? Does it get lonely or do you usually have a team of people working with you? Thanks!

furcula_it2 karma

The daily life depends on the expedition, it can be lots of trekking/hiking like what we recently did in Ecuador to search for new snake species, or it can be more low-key stationed at a jungle lodge where you can hike during the day and return for the night. Fortunately I get to work with a lot of different people, from other researchers to science journalist to filmmakers - so every expedition is a bit different and keeps things fresh. In March of last year, I did spend about a whole month at a research lodge with just myself and some of the locals and I was pretty eager to get back to the states for a little after that. -A

furcula_it2 karma

Depends on which project! In Ecuador for a year I was with between 8-20 people at a time, and never alone while on surveys in the field, usually around 6 of us. But slow satellite solar-powered internet rarely worked, no bar to go out to, no family to see. So yes, a bit lonely at times but I knew it was a time to sacrifice a bit of relationship time in order to focus on the field. Glad I did it. -P