You could say Nina Zitani has a blended family – two wonderful boys and six insects.
The part-time Biology professor’s latest addition to the family is named Heterospilus zitaniae, a new wasp species discovered in the rain forests of Costa Rica by Paul Marsh, a retired researcher from the United States Department of Agriculture.
“I tell my students it’s a perk of the job,” Zitani said. “Once you become a taxonomist, and you’ve discovered and named new species yourself, your superiors name species after you. It’s a way of saying you have done good work and put in the time.
“It’s an honorary thing taxonomists do for each other.”
Growing up in Moorestown, N.J., Zitani earned a master of science and doctorate in systematic entomology from the University of Wyoming in Laramie. During her time out west, she led two expeditions to Costa Rica where she spent weeks searching for new insect species, being involved in the collection of six new species.
In damp conditions, surrounded by a variety of spiders and venomous snakes and hauling car batteries every night to power the light trap, it was the perfect outing for Zitani.
“When I started my graduate work, this is what it was all about,” she said. “My supervisor would ask if you want to go to the rain forest and look for new species and, without hesitation, I said ‘yes.’”
But really, how many new species of insects could there still be out there? They’ve all been discovered by now, haven’t they?
“Oh gosh, no,” Zitani said. “There are about 1.7-million described species of all organisms worldwide – bacteria, fungi, plants, animals and everything else. The estimate of the total number still undiscovered, which is always difficult to estimate since the universe is so huge, and just looking at terrestrial arthropods, which what insects belong to, right now the consensus is around 8 million.”
More recently, Zitani returned to the University of Wyoming where she helped teach a tropical diversity field course in Ecuador. Her former graduate school supervisor, Scott Shaw, was teaching and doing research at the same location.
He had discovered a new genus the year before and told Zitani to keep an eye out for any wasps.
“I had a break one morning and was up the side of the mountain and was simply walking along a trail and I found these wasps, and with the naked eye it’s hard, but I knew they looked like the wasps Scott was looking for,” she said. “I collected them and gave them to him. Later that night, I was just about to head to bed, when he burst in and gave me this big hug. ‘You found them,’ he said.”
It’s a bit of advice Zitani gives her students today.
“What I always teach my students, and when I take them in the field, is you have to stop and smell the roses,” she said. “You have to slow down, look and observe; use your eyes. A lot of students want to quickly hike up the mountain, but along the way you may be missing a lot of stuff.
“There is so much to see.”
And once they see, and trap the insects, the monotonous work begins: cataloguing its colour, measuring the body length, head, thorax, abdomen, wings, temple, eyes, legs and more. In total, she’ll look at close to 100 variations on an insect no bigger than 3mm.
“You will get thousands of insects and then you have to sort through them,” Zitani said. “It’s incredibly tedious. But you’re trying to learn about their biology and ecology. The idea is to – literally – live in the forest and learn as much as you can and find out as much as you can. We know so little.”
Every spring, Zitani gets the urge to head back to some remote rain forest to hunt down more insects – hopefully sooner than later, because she and her husband, Western biology professor Greg Thorn, have put together a proposal for a field course in Ecuador.
“I never have a problem to find students willing to go,” she said. “You look for people who naturally have it in them; they’re out there. I love the rain forest and love teaching this.”