Naming something to chirp about for professor

Paul Mayne//Western NewsWestern Biology professor Natasha Mhatre has a namesake in Mexico – a newly discovered species of tree crickets has been named in her honour, following years of correspondence with a Wisconsin-based citizen scientist.

If you find yourself in the tropical deciduous forest of the Querétaro, Mexico, you may run into Natasha Mhatre. Or, at least, the tree cricket that bears the Biology professor’s name.

You’ll know Oecanthus mhatreae – one of the latest insect species to be discovered – by its heart-shaped wings, light olive green and brown colours, and chirp-like brief trills. Mhatre has yet to meet her namesake cricket in person, or, perhaps ironically, the person who chose to honour her with the distinction.

Nancy Collins, a Wisconsin-based citizen scientist, struck up a common-interest friendship with Mhatre years ago through Facebook. The naming of the tree cricket is a way to say thanks for all the help she’s received over the years.

“Natasha has long been a supporter of citizen scientists. For someone like me, who has no entomological training and no scientific education beyond the nursing of humans, this encouragement is vital,” said Collins, who wanted to honour Mhatre for her research around acoustic communication of insects.

“My lack of being able to fully understand scientific literature keeps me from venturing beyond my limitations, yet professionals like Natasha encourage me to continue to work at ventures which are within my scope.”

At first, Mhatre was hesitant about having her name attached to such a discovery – a first for her. But with a little convincing she was delighted to be recognized.

“She asked, ‘Would it be OK if I named a cricket after you?’ I was like, ‘No!’” laughed Mhatre. Why, it was a Mexican tree cricket – and she was not Mexican. Plus it seemed sort of wrong to be named after a cricket she’s never even seen.

“But she told me I’ve done a lot or work in this area and the way it would work was its Latin name would be named for me, but the common, everyday name would be a Mexican-based name,” she said. “It’s both odd and cool at the same time.”

Its common name – the Otomí tree cricket – is named the Otomí, an indigenous people of Mexico inhabiting the central Mexican Plateau region.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Mhatre, whose research looks at how insects make and perceive sounds, said tree crickets have been an important model system with the interesting findings, including the tools they make to increase the volume of their chirps and the amplification system in their ears to better receive information.

Having citizen scientists like Collins willing to undertake such research is not only beneficial to Mhatre, but the entire science community, as well.

When Collins first contacted her years ago, Mhatre knew she was dealing with someone who knew their stuff.

“She was detailed and knowledgeable, sharing with you fairly detailed information about how you tell one species from another. She had a website and was already at the stage of writing a book on tree crickets. Nancy is unusual in that regard,” she said, adding anyone wanting to know and learn more about insects is not bothersome, but rather welcoming.

“People like me who work on insects, and what seem to be slightly esoteric things about insects, nobody wants to listen to us,” she laughed. “Some of the things I do are not easy to understand because it’s mechanics and biophysics. Most people are running in the opposite direction as soon as you say that. So I get excited when someone is interested in the same thing and the processes involved.”

Mhatre added it’s extremely hard to find people to do taxonomy (the science of finding and discovering species). It’s not glamourous work to be continually looking for and at bugs under a microscope.

“Someone willing do to this on their own time, like Nancy, is amazing. We should support it as much as we can,” she said.

Collins was elated when Mhatre joined her Tree Cricket Appreciation Group on Facebook in 2013, sharing her expertise many times when questions arise from members around the world.

“Her willingness to share her knowledge is greatly appreciated,” said Collins, who has named five other tree crickets species after other scientists who have mentored and supported her.

“By naming tree crickets after these scientists, 200 years from now, folks investigating singing insects will feel prompted to investigate the bodies of work of the people for whom the insects were named.”

Mhatre said Collins has shared an interest in wanting to potentially conduct DNA research with the tree crickets but, while she’d love to do a project together, her lab at Western is not set up for such work. She did, however, make Collins a promise.

“It’s frowned upon to name it (insect) after yourself. So I made a deal with her that if I ever find anything that I’ll name it after her,” Mhatre said.