The Complexity and Interconnectedness of Nature

The opportunity to work at The Caterpillar Lab has given me new perspectives in the subject of conservation and ecology. While I understood the basic important roles of arthropods in an ecosystem as consumers and resources for other animals, the complexity of these species interactions are incomprehensible. 

My favorite example to demonstrate this complexity is in the subject of parasitoids. Parasitoids are insects that live and feed in/on another insect as a larva and once they further their development, they eventually eclose as adults killing and leaving the host insect. The majority of the parasitoids are wasps, which are extremely diverse and arguably the most diverse order of animals. These interactions range from generalists that lay in many host species to parasitoids that are specialized and only have a single species they can target. While this interaction is complicated enough, we can further observe hyperparasitoids. Hyperparasitoids are parasitoids for parasitoids and these are often specific to a species, genus or a group of genera.

Parasitoid wasp cocoons on a spiny oak-slug caterpillar.

When I finally thought this could not get any more complicated, I was informed that this has been observed to the sixth level. Therefore, it is possible that a single insect can have a parasitoid with a hyperparasitoid that has another hyperparasitoid that has another hyperparasitoid that has another hyperparasitoid. This is only one of many amazing examples of how evolution has crafted the natural world. Best of all, we do not need to go far to uncover parasitoid and hyperparasitoid interactions, as they can be found right in our backyards. 

By listening to my peers talk about these fascinating animals, I find that this internship has taught me far more specific details in ecology than any course at Brandeis. Our education at Brandeis is much more limited in time and tends to focus from a broader perspective, but in this position, I am constantly able to learn from others that are outstandingly knowledgeable in their narrow studies of entomology. With all the new information, I can begin to connect these overlooked interactions to Brandeis’ broader studies of ecology and comprehend the value of the forgettable species. All these animals, even the smallest hyperparasitoid wasps that we can barely see, play key roles in their environment and are vulnerable to our destructive actions towards wildlife and are in dire need of conservation. 

Parasitoid wasps that eclosed from a smartweed dagger caterpillar.

After this internship concludes, I would like to continue sharing what I have learned with the greater Brandeis community. I am hopeful to introduce mothing and other programs that highlight local biodiversity with the support from Brandeis Sustainability and the Environmental Studies Department. As part of Brandeis Sustainability Ambassadors, I would like to lead and organize these programs that bring the untaught animals to the forefront and highlight their value to their ecosystems as well as to us. Professor Colleen Hitchcock and Mary Fischer have provided me with tremendous amounts of support in finding the love for arthropods, and I hope to continue working with them to bring native entomology to our campus and classrooms.

Beyond Brandeis, This internship has taught me to learn the importance of the overlooked species and continue expanding my horizon. From a conservation standpoint, only focusing on protecting the flagship species can lead to conservation failures. Ecosystems are deeply intertwined, and to care for one species means caring for all the other species in the environment. 

Author: Forrest Shimazu

I am currently a third-year student at Brandeis University, majoring in Environmental Studies and minoring in Climate Justice, Science and Policy as well as Studio Art. I am interested in pursuing wildlife conservation through photography, education and research.