Saturday, August 18, 2007

Flawed heroes of Twentieth Century entymology

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, natural history, insects, collecting, naturalists, biographies, autobiographies

Two memories from my childhood hint at the range, just of size, found in the family Ichneumonidae, the largest family of parasitic wasps.

This poor hornworm, such as I find on my tomato plants, is the victim of a tiny wasp no more than 3mm long (about 1/8 inch). She inserted one egg into the caterpillar's body. In a feat of self-cloning that puts to shame our practice of "embryo splitting" to produce eight calves from one egg, as many as 700 larvae resulted, eating first the hornworm's fat reserves, then emitting a hormone that causes it to crawl high on the plant, then finishing off its insides before burrowing out to form pupae in the little cocoons seen in this image.

This painting, which shows the "giant ichneumon" better than any photo I could find. The artist, Caroline Bochud, has copies of the painting for sale here.

I saw many of these on the Box elder trees during the years we lived in Utah. They are huge, about 7cm long (almost 3 inches), with a "stinger" (ovipositor) longer yet. I usually saw one in the midst of "drilling" into the tree. If I watched patiently, it would drill deeper and deeper, perhaps using more than half the ovipositor, pause, then gradually pull free. It all took half an hour or so. I learned later that this scary little lady had located a grub eating in the wood, perhaps 5cm (2") deep. She has excellent hearing. She then drilled and deposited one egg into the tunnel nearby. The larva hatches almost immediately and burrows into the grub. Sometime the following Spring, the young wasp would burrow out of the tree. Fascinating and yucky!

Ichneumoninae is the second largest subfamily of ichneumons, and includes the tiny parasite of the hornworm, but not the giant. All subfamily members parasitize caterpillars of the moths and butterflies. Most are small, around one or two centimeters long. As it turns out, very many of the known species of this subfamily, primarily those of Europe and Asia, were described by one unusual man, Gerd Heinrich, who labored forty years to get his life's work into print. Altogether, he described more than 1,500 species and subspecies, and the Zoologische Staatssammlung München has produced an on-line index to his work.

The Snoring Bird: My Family's Journey Through a Century of Biology by Bernd Heinrich—Emeritus Professor of Biology at the University of Vermont—is a biography of Gerd, the father, and the autobiography of the author, the son.

In every family where a stong-willed, obsessively focused father raises an equally powerful son, the dynamic relationship results in a son fighting, seemingly for his life, to outstrip the trap of his father's character. This is particularly true where there is much to deplore. Yet it is equally true that the son repeats most of the father's history, both successes and mistakes, though there are glaring areas of oppositeness. This comes out in spades in Snoring Bird

Oppositeness first: Gerd fought in two world wars, on the German side, and was proud of his military heritage (though his WW2 service was a matter of self-preservation, not loyalty); Bernd began as a loyalist, volunteering to enlist during the Vietnam War, but was 4-F, "unfit for service" due to a bad back, and later became a pacifist.

A milder contrast: Gerd worked with academics, but was not one himself, and could not have been one by temperament. Bernd is an academic with a distinguished scientific career only now approaching a close after forty years.

Similarities: Both did their life's work with insects, specifically Hymenoptera, Gerd with parasitic wasps, and Bernd mainly with bees. Both collected throughout the world. Both were primarily naturalists, though the son is more of an experimenter. Both became very attached to rural homesteads, Gerd to Borowke (now in Poland) and Bernd to a farmstead in Maine. Both are exceptionally stubborn and brook no argument. Both were singularly focused on their scientific passion, to the neglect of their families.

This last point is particularly painful to read. Both men had no trouble attracting women, and both seemingly without remorse discarded relationships, or forced one woman to accept another, almost on a whim. They tended to fall in lust (they only thought it love) on sight. Neither ever learned that love is a decision...but few men really do.

And what is the "snoring bird"? In 1931 Gerd was sent by investors to Celebes (a large Indonesian island) collect a specific bird of which only one specimen was known. After more than a year, during which he also collected new specimens of Wallace's Rail, nearly as rare, he heard a new sound, like a large man snoring. Creeping up, he saw it was the target bird, so he shot it. While there, he collected hundreds of insects, mostly Ichneumons, and also many, many other birds and small mammals. He had his wife along, and her sister (his preferred bedmate). His wife had become an excellent taxonomist. The skins were sold for added finances.

Many of his expeditions were like this. He was usually sent to find birds or shrews or whatever, but collected wasps as he went. He also took one, two, or three women along. Once only he took Bernd, who spent a year in Africa in between his first and second years at UCLA. (You must read for yourself who Bernd's mother is. She is now the surviving "Mrs. Heinrich"). Once many of the holotype specimens he collected and described were ensconced in various institutions, and his work in print, his fame gradually was made. He's be gratified to see the ZSM web site.

Bernd's fame was made by being the man to show how bumblebees can fly. He first found that hawk moths (like the one which hatches from the hornworm that escapes wasply attention) have warm flight muscles, as warm as 42ºC (108ºF), and that they keep a constant temperature during flight by shunting more or less blood through the abdomen, their "radiator". Bumblebees were found to "shiver" to warm their flight muscles before flying, and to use similar blood shunting depending on air and sunlight temperatures. This work was presented to a public audience in Scientific American in 1988, an issue I remember reading.

Two men, more similar than different, who made their mark on 20th Century biology. This book portrays them, warts and all. Not exactly heroes to emulate, not all cautionary tale: two men who did science the best they knew how.

1 comment:

aroid said...

I'm about halfway thru Snoring Bird, and enjoying it immensely. Your comments are wonderfully personal and thoughtful. I came across a hornworm similarly afflicted this summer, for the first time,