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Thinking outside the lab: NMSU entomology students travel to Belize

In March, through the Faculty-led International Programs, a group of eight students, led by Scott Bundy, associate professor of entomology in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at New Mexico State University, traveled to Belize to research and experience its biodiversity.

Scott Bundy, associate professor of entomology at New Mexico State University, traveled to Belize to research arthropods. They explored different parts of the country, finding a myriad of insects unique to that country.
Students research arthropods.
Bundy added they found several insects, such as a relative of a stalk-eyed fly, which appear to be common in Belize but are not found in New Mexico.

From venomous spiders, ants, leafhoppers and even marine invertebrates, the students’ non-stop, 10-day trip brought a new perspective of what it’s like to work as an entomologist in the field.

“The idea was to get them out in the ‘wild’ because the insect diversity of tropical areas is so different than what we have around here,” Bundy said. “The purpose of the class was to learn about arthropod biology, to observe how the animals behave in their environment, to learn proper field research techniques, and to just be more hands-on.”

Every activity doubled as a learning experience and included visiting ancient Mayan ruins, caves, reefs and what many students enjoyed, tasting the local cuisine.

“One of the biggest things we got to enjoy was their food, which has a lot of variety,” said Helen Vessel, assistant researcher at Bundy’s lab in the Department of Entomology, Plant Pathology and Weed Science. “Every meal was a feast.”

But, before getting on the plane, students participated in a series of lectures on campus, which included Mayan history and arthropod taxonomy and biology, enabling them to familiarize themselves with the types of insects they would encounter in different parts of the country.

Students also used and practiced different sampling techniques, many of which they had learned in a classroom setting but were not often able to use because of the habitat differences in New Mexico.

“Every location was different and we set up black light traps at nights and the amount of insects it attracted was amazing,” said Danielle Lara, student majoring in agricultural biology.

Lara had a close encounter with one of the most venomous spiders in the world. The spider was found in her cabin. How she managed to sleep after the incident? “By putting a net over my bed,” she said.

“The biodiversity is huge compared to here. You find moths the size of your face or you would be completely surrounded by tiny shiny objects on the ground at night, which turned out to be spider eyes,” Vessel added.

Lara and Vessel agreed this trip had been an important learning experience for future field work and learning about arthropods in their habitats. Here in New Mexico, they usually collect insects and bring them straight to the lab, without studying their behavior in their natural environment.

Tropical areas provided different environments and required students to use critical thinking skills as well as practical and academic tools.

They studied arthropods and their habitats in forests, jungles, rivers, caves, cayes and rivers.

Bundy added they found several insects, such as a relative of a stalk-eyed fly, which appear to be common in Belize but are not found in New Mexico.

“They look like little hammer-head sharks,” he said. “The males have eyes on extended stalks. And, we got to bring a couple of them back, so that we can identify the particular species of this bizarre insect.”

Bundy said this trip changed how he looks for prospective research in New Mexico. In the future he would like to study a few new groups of insects he has not fully explored in his 14 years as an entomologist at NMSU.

“This trip gave us new ideas on how we might address our research on insects we find here, and maybe look at them with a new perspective,” Bundy said.

Through the FLiP program, NMSU has developed a close relationship with Belize, which allowed the students to bring back a few samples of insects to continue their research and develop checklists of arthropod species.

“This is the second trip of its kind. Not much is known about the diversity of many of the insect groups there, so it is a good way for us at NMSU and Belize to share information,” Bundy said.