Student Research Spotlight - Carolyn Trietsch
Posted: July 23, 2015
The Ghost of a New Species
by Briana Ezray
Can we conserve something if we’re not even sure it exists? In some cases, scientists are only now identifying organisms that have already gone extinct.
Carolyn Trietsch, a Ph.D. student working with Penn State Associate Professor of Entomology Andrew Deans, has the duty to unravel the identity of 16 species of parasitic wasps, all of which were collected in Madagascar and some of which may already be extinct due to habitat loss and fragmentation.
Identification of these specimens has been extremely difficult because the wasps are only a few millimeters in length. Trietsch has been using a high-powered microscope to take pictures of different characters, such as certain aspects of the mandibles, or jaws, that distinguish each specimen as different from the others. The information she is collecting will be useful for understanding the function of certain body parts and how these distinctive body parts evolved.
“For all of these specimens, no one knows what their biology is, how long they live, what they parasitize, or really anything other than where they were found,” said Trietsch.
In addition, Trietsch says that many of the species can be identified by the shape of the male genitalia. This might sound unusual, but it is actually fairly common for insects to be identified this way. Male genitalia are often distinct because they are species specific. Like a key and lock mechanism, where only one type of key can open a certain lock, males of one species can only mate with females of the same species.
Many people dream of discovering and naming a new species, but never get the opportunity. Trietsch, however, most likely will discover and name multiple new species. Even if some of the species she discovers are already extinct, the discoveries will add to our knowledge of the biodiversity we have here on Earth.
“Giving an organism a name allows you to share knowledge about it and make it accessible to others,” said Trietsch.