Encouraging undergraduate ecology students into insect research

A few recent conversations got me thinking about whether the way we teach undergraduate ecology is doing enough to attract students into research pathways relevant to insect conservation.  

I’m not talking about entomology, the specialised science of insects, which generally attracts students with specific interests and skills. I’m talking about training ecologists and environmental scientists who want to work on insect-related conservation problems.

Most Australian ecology* undergraduates finish their degrees with very limited exposure to insect sampling techniques and identification skills. Most university science departments only offer one or two invertebrate units (if any), usually as electives. The remaining units that a student will do during their degree, especially the core units, tend to focus on plants and vertebrates to explore ecological concepts and theories. Field-based units also usually teach wildlife trapping and survey techniques for vertebrates.

So it’s no wonder that most students finish an ecology or environmental science degree with very little background in insect ecology and identification skills. If they pursue Honours and further research, it makes sense that they look for projects on species they’re aware of, interested in and familiar working with.

Working with insects (and invertebrates generally) is a steep learning curve and can be a lot more difficult to pick up from scratch than most other taxonomic groups. They’re usually harder to sample, harder to identify, harder to learn how to identify, and harder to place in context because of lack of existing knowledge. For undergrads looking for their first research project, all this can be daunting, especially given the short intensive timeframe for Honours.

I fell into insect ecology by accident, for exactly this reason. I had very little prior knowledge or interest in insects when I started my ecology degree, and chose an urban ecology Honours project using koalas as my study organism. After a problem with my supervisor halfway through, I had to find something else to finish my Honours year – I ended up on an insect project that could be done relatively quickly in the few months I had left, and the rest is history.

As an ecologist who now predominantly works on insects, I’ve always struggled to ‘fit in’ to my relevant disciplinary communities. I’m not specialised enough for the entomologists and I’m too ‘niche’ for the ecologists. Disciplinary communities vary between countries, but in Australia I’ve found that ecology (the research community) tends to be more focused on vertebrates and plants. This focus is reflected in grant programs, publications, outreach, collaborations and general peer networks. And teaching.

There are no simple solutions of course, but I think there are a couple of key points we can think about as supervisors, lecturers and researchers.

Integrate more insect content into undergrad ecology units. Insects are not just food for vertebrates or economically-important pests. There are plenty of insect examples that can replace some of the common vertebrate examples we use in ecology lectures. There are conservation success stories (eg large blue butterfly in the UK), amazing stories of rediscovery (eg Lord Howe Island stick insect), overexploitation/illegal trade conundrums (eg Wallace’s giant bee). The classic snowshoe hare and arctic fox population dynamics can be easily replaced by any number of insect population examples, host plant-herbivores or host-parasitoids. Using online tools and apps can enhance insect pracs; for example we used iNaturalist and Atlas of Living Australia as the basis for an at-home moth diversity survey prac for a third year conservation biology unit. While identification of collected samples is challenging in undergrad teaching contexts (see next point), there are many recognisable species that make useful teaching tools, e.g. Citrus swallowtail life cycle. Other non-prac activities can help get students excited about insects, eg blogging assignments. Choosing teams of staff with different taxonomic specialties to teach general ecology and conservation units is a great way to expose students to multiple taxa.

Identification challenges. There is an urgent need for more accessible user-friendly keys to identify insects to a useable taxonomic level via morphological attributes. The lack of specialist expertise and the lack of keys available for most groups mean that it’s impossible to identify everything to species. Insect taxonomy is particularly difficult because keys that are available are mostly based on features that can only be viewed under a microscope or through dissection. More insect pracs are a great way to give ecology undergrads hands on experience with insects, but it’s a big ask when there are limited identification tools available for students with no entomological background. The time and effort required to learn how to identify the species of interest can also be a deterrent for prospective Honours students, given the short intensive timeframe for most Honours projects. Challenges with insect taxonomy and identification are important issues to tackle for insect research generally, but they are particularly relevant to encouraging undergrads with no previous insect expertise to see a future in insect conservation.


*Including related degrees that are called different names at different institutions, e.g. environmental science, zoology, wildlife management etc.

© Manu Saunders 2022

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