Bringing new species to light: an interview with David AC Stanford-Beale

Cusuco National Park in Honduras is one of the strangest places I have ever visited. A cloud forest habitat, there are large pines amidst broadleaf trees and huge tree ferns, that together with the often-present white mist made me feel like I was a Jurassic jungle.


The forest is teeming with wildlife, and no group is more abundant than the arthropods – gorgeous butterflies with see-through wings, metallic-blue beetles in their hundreds, large beetles, small beetles, beetles aplenty. There are grasshoppers with bright yellow and blue colours, hairy caterpillars you feel very confident you must not under any circumstances touch, giant tarantula-eating wasps with bright orange stripes on their black abdomens and dozens of different spiders with psychedelic colours.

On its yearly expedition to Honduras, Operation Wallacea conducts conservation field research, and provides younger people with the opportunity to experience this type of career first hand. One of the teams focuses on invertebrates, and different researchers focus on specific groups. David Stanford-Beale was in charge of Light trapping: “I am the Light trapping Coordinator and Chief Invertebrate Taxonomist, which means that I oversee everyone´s light trapping efforts and try to standardize them as best we can. The taxonomy part of my role is to identify everything down to species level as far as possible and describe new species if we find any.”

Light trapping is the process of attracting insects at night, using a very bright bulb in front of a white sheet. The light attracts them: “We think that they are attracted by the light because they use it as a navigation point, similar to the moon, sun and stars and that they don´t understand artificial light and use that as a navigation point. Similarly, if you kept the north star on one side at all times you would eventually go in a massive circle, so that’s why we think they come to light traps.”

David Stanford-Beale by the Light Trap holding a saturniid moth.

David Stanford-Beale by the Light Trap holding a saturniid moth.

Sitting by a light trap at night in Cusuco is a wonderful experience, with hundreds of moths flitting about, landing on you, and resting on the white sheet, turning it into a patchwork of brightly coloured precious gems. And many of those gems are most likely undescribed to science: “We got something like 11% or 12% that all of the species you would encounter on a light trap being undescribed here.”

Besides contributing to the ongoing effort of monitoring the biodiversity in this national park, David is also collecting specimens for his own MSc research. He is focusing on two groups of nocturnal moths, the Shingidae and the Saturniidae: “We are looking at sphingids, which are Hawk moths, and saturniids which are Moon moths. Sphingids and saturniids are really interesting because they are well-studied in Europe and North America, but not that much in Central America. We are trying to determine which species there are here or if there are any brand new species.”

Saturniidae moth (Rothschildia orizaba orizaba) ©David Stanford-Beale.

Saturniidae moth (Rothschildia orizaba orizaba) ©David Stanford-Beale.

Light trapping in Cusuco is heavily dependent on the weather and the team can´t work when it is raining: “Field work, everywhere in the entire world is very hit and miss. Here we have a fantastic staff team where everyone works really well together. However, when it rains it really, really rains. When that happens we can´t do anything because we are working with reasonably high voltage equipment and we don t want to get that wet.”

In spite of the weather limitations – it is a cloud forest after all, and it did rain at night quite frequently – this season was highly successful for the Light Trapping Team.“We have found, so far, nine new species of moth to Cusuco National Park, five of which are new to science, we think, but we still have to do a proper literature review to be sure. And that is just for the sphingids and saturniids. At the light trap we have a countless bounty of new species for sure. Unfortunately we don´t have enough taxonomists to go through all these potential new species.”

Now, I wish I could put up some photos of these new species to science, and share with you the excitement of seeing them, but that must wait until David has had a chance to describe the new species. Apparently, if I put up a photo of an undescribed species, that would be considered a description in itself, and I would get the credit for it, which would obviously not be fair. I can tell you, one of them was yellow. I asked David how he could be sure it was a new species, and he replied that it was the equivalent of finding a pink Resplendent Quetzal (quetzals are green birds with red bellies). It was so different from all the known species that it had to be new.

Saturniidae moth (Automeris belti) © David Stanford-Beale.

Saturniidae moth (Automeris belti) © David Stanford-Beale.

Like many of the staff on Opwall expeditions, David started out as an Opwall volunteer: “I was a research assistant last year and somehow managed to fund being here for 8 weeks. I attached myself to the Light Trapping team and things kind of went from there. I am now doing my MSc in sphingids and saturniids. I absolutely love Honduras cloud forest research – it´s brilliant!”

Finally, David´s advice for your researchers and people wishing to work in conservation: “Networking, specifically on organizations like Operation Wallacea. It opens many doors for many people, and on expeditions like this is a very useful thing to do. I would definitely encourage anyone that is interested in insects at all to come to the Neotropics because there are some amazing species out there just waiting to be found.”

David´s favourite sound in Cusuco: The crickets, katydids and the little insects at night.

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