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Title: Information Sheet, Dr. Alex Konstantinov

An Interview with Dr. Alexander S. Konstantinov at the U.S. National Museum of Natural History, August 2003.

Mr. Matthew Minor interviewed Dr. Konstantinov.

I added information (some within square brackets) to clarify the interview.

E. M. B. 2003.

1. What inspired you to enter the field of entomology?

It was actually several events rather than one event. In the Soviet Union, if you do not go to a University immediately after high school, you have to go into the army, and I did not really know what I was interested in. I was interested in art and attending an art school, but I did not feel like going to an art institute and becoming an artist. I had to go into the army, and while I was in the army, I realized I needed to decide on a carreer. I did not want to be doing army things. There was a good library where I lived, and I was able to read many books. I was also interested in Natural History more or less, and one of the books I read was about a researcher who studied Flea Beetles. His life was quite remarkable, and I realized that I could also study a similar thing. After I finished my army duty, I went to study biology at the university in Minsk. A professor there was actually working on Leaf Beetles. His specialty was actually Leaf Beetles, and he taught the biology of invertebrates for first-year students. One of my friends had a question for him, and after the lecture, the professor invited my friend and me to his laboratory. We went to his laboratory and that experience was the kind of the beginning of my interest in entomology. The professor was extremely inspiring and very interesting. He did giant [a great amount of] research and wrote nice books. He could tell stories endlessly. He also worked on the same groups as the researcher in the book that I had read years ago. He explained how to collect and how to go to certain places and what to look for and pay attention to. So I went collecting during that summer, and I was basically hooked on this kind of research. When I saw giant and wonderful beetles everywhere associated with plants, I was thrilled. I came back to the laboratory and tried to identify them. The experience was eye opening for me. There was also an institution in Russia, part of the former Soviet Union, called the Zoological Institute and Scientific Work [correct name?]. This is a 180-year-old taxonomic and systematic institution. After the first year of collecting, the professor asked if I wanted to go to the institute to see collections and meet with people. This was another event that inspired me. I went there, and it was remarkable. There were collections that were almost 200 years old, a great library, and very bright researchers. After that, I knew more or less, what I wanted to do.

2. What specific kind of work do you do?

I do research on Leaf Beetles. This is mainly systematic and taxonomy of Leaf Beetles. I also like working on comparative morphology of leaf beetles, which is not very well known. I do some phylogenetic studies also. Sometimes I deviate a little bit and do some biogeographic studies. Leaf Beetles are rather small, and to identify them to species you have to look at their male genitalia. These genitalia have many characteristics, but to explain why they exist very difficult. Why do they have certain characteristics in one species and very different characteristics in a related species? I was trying to tackle that question and figure out why differences occurred. I also have a colleague, who works on Weevils, and he wrote a paper on sexual selection within the species. Generally, I work with Flea Beetles all over the world. I try to work at the generic level, because there is no generic classification.

3. What taxonomic groups of arthropods are your assignments?

I work with Chrysomelidae.

4. What is the most exciting project you have worked on?

I always hope my next project will be the most exciting. It is hard to say. An exciting project that I have worked on is the one on sexual selection. It was exciting for me because it was a new area. I had to read a lot to get up to speed on the information. This was one of the more recent exciting projects. The phylogenetic studies that I do are quite exciting; they are never really finished. I keep myself excited about my long-term Flea Beetle phylogenetic project because it is very important to try to build classification for this group of beetles. A sound classification, which would work for my colleagues, is much needed.

5. What keeps you excited about your profession?

The amount of unknown information is what keeps me excited. The fact that you do not have to go far from here [the Smithsonian], such as Potomac River or the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, and find numerous, new, undiscovered species, is exciting.

6. Would you like to work on any arthropod group that is currently outside your assignment? If yes, what is it? Why?

I do not think I would like to do detailed research on another group, actually. Sometimes, I just collect because the specimens are exciting, and you get them in different environments. I do not think I want to work [perform detailed research] on them really. I have realized that I am at the age where I do not have endless amounts of time, and I have current research projects that I need to finish. I was interested in beetle genus called Carabus. It is a large genus of carnivorous beetles.

7. In retirement (if you ever feel like retiring), would you continue work with arthropods?

I think I will. It seems that I will have a lot of work to finish.

8. How often do you see changes occurring in species due to environmental changes that occur in your specialty arthropods?

I do not see morphological changes very much. When we beetle researchers find a group of individuals which have significant, consistant morphological differences compared to closely related beetles, we may designate the former group as a new species. I see almost constant changes in beetle species’ population sizes. It is hard to understand why, but there are many examples of a species’ being very common in one year and then almost totally absent in the next couple of years. Then it will become common again. Many arthropods share this population characteristic. Sometime you see a host plant which is abundant, and no beetles of a particular species feeding on it. In the next year, these beetles are present. It is very difficult to attribute this to a particular change in environment or event. Leaf Beetle life cycles are not very well known, and we know very little about how environmental factors affect population sizes of these beetles. In many cases, we do not know what the larva do, where they are, or how long does it take them to develop.

9. Is biotic conservation important to you? If yes, why?

It is important to me. Many times, I have seen places completely devastated by human activity, and that is very sad. The communities of leaf beetles are not coming back in these places, and they are gone forever. Some species of these beetles are gone and were never known by humans. This is not even always in tropical regions. Temperate regions and mountainous regions are particularly prone to this kind of devastation, because there is not enough land there for both Humans and native organisms. Habitats in these areas are usually already occupied by people, and it is very difficult to find native species in them. It seems that Flea Beetles should not be very sensitive to such habitat change because it would seem that all they require is a host plant and a little bit of space. Apparently, they are sensitive to these disturbances, because “they do not want to be disturbed;” they just jump from their host plants and then have to move back to them. In places that are heavily occupied with industrial and agricultural activity, collecting is not good. Native preserves are better. I collect in these areas with the proper permits.

10. What has been your most remarkable “bug” encounter?

There were a couple of species that took me years to find and when I finally found them, I was just thrilled. There are some flea beetles which are known to live in very high elevations of the Himalayas, and it took me years to get enough money to get there. Once I was there, it took days and days of walking and climbing, until I finally located the beetles at about 4,000 meters on a slope with a very low rhododendrons and moss below them. I just took a piece of the moss and hit it against a piece of white cloth. When I did this, I saw the flea beetles jumping. I was thrilled. To see them alive was very interesting.

11. What is the most dangerous bug encounter you have had?

My life has never been in danger because of a flea beetle’s attacking me. Once when I was collecting in Tajikistan, a place far away from civilization, I was turning over stones looking for Carabus, and a big Carabus was under a stone. A Carabus has a defensive glands that contain offensive liquids. Carabus beetles spray the liquids at me, and usually it does not matter because I am far enough away from the beetles. In Tajikistan, I put my arm too close to the beetle, and it ejected its liquid. It ricocheted from my right finger nail into my eye, and I got scared. If something would have happened, I would not have been able to get back to the bus stop or to help. Sometimes looking for beetles takes you to dangerous places, and collecting can be rather risky.

12. If you had to choose between a vertebrate and an arthropod as a pet, which would you choose.

I envision pets as being vertebrates. I like dogs and cats. Beetles are more objects to me, not really pets with personalities.

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