Kansas University entomologist Andrew Short is not new to fieldwork.
The 30-year-old assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology has taken part in 20 expeditions to South America, eight in the past four years to Venezuela to study aquatic insects.
But his latest expedition directed him to what he describes as "a high-difficulty place to get into" — an unspoiled tropical rain forest in Suriname, where he discovered at least 20 species of water beetles new to science.
"When you're standing in the middle of a stream and you collect a tiny brown beetle, no bigger than a pinhead, it's really difficult to know exactly the significance," said Short, who had already described 103 species of beetles before the trip.
"But I work a lot in this region of northern South America, so I have an idea of what to expect in the field. If I see something and I don't know what it is, then I have a good indication that it's something that no one has seen."
Short was among 30 scientists who flew to Suriname on Aug. 15 to search for unknown plants and animals. The expedition was part of Conservation International's Rapid Assessment Program, which provides biological information from various countries to accelerate conservation efforts and improve biodiversity protection.
After landing in Suriname's capital, the group traveled to Kwamalasamutu to ask permission of the indigenous community's chief to collect specimens on its land.
Short said the goals of the expedition included doing an inventory of the area to develop a baseline of plants and animals; determining how the information could be applied, such as promoting eco-tourism; and assessing the impact the indigenous community has on the land and its animals and recommending changes, if needed.
Once permission was gained, Short, 11 other scientists, 12 Surinamese students and eight to 10 Amerindians loaded their gear into 10 large motorized canoes and headed to a camp deeper into the rain forest.
Short said the students and scientists focused on finding aquatic insects in small streams, marshes and holes in the ground where water collected, while the Amerindians helped guide the researchers, cut trails and build camps.
Short said he and the others used tea strainers and nets to gather beetles from the water and an aspirator to suck the insects out of the water and deposit them into a vial filled with ethanol.
At night, they would clean the samples, write labels and keep a running list of species collected.
The group collected more than 4,000 specimens during the trip.
"I estimated we collected 85 species in the field," he said, "but I think it will be more than 100."
Short said one of his most interesting finds was an inselberg, a granite outcrop that rises from the forest.
"There's a kind of aquatic beetle and insect community that only lives on these rock outcrops. We were fortunate enough to find one, and it had a little bit of water — just enough to find a few species that are new to science and may contribute to our understanding of evolution and biogeography," he said.
Once he returned to KU on Sept. 12, Short and his team began mounting and labeling specimens for the university's entomology collection. Some specimens will go into a frozen tissue collection for use as DNA samples.
Short said he will study the specimens for about a year and then write a detailed report about what was found at each site, which will be compiled into a small book that provides baseline data.
Short, who also is curator of KU's Biodiversity Institute, said he plans to go back to the rain forest in September to collect more specimens.
"Suriname has an almost entirely intact forest — except for a little bit along the coast where most of the people live and a little bit of mining," he said. "There really exists a huge opportunity for this country to preserve in wholesale its entire biodiversity. There is no loss yet, which is really rare for most developing countries."