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Title: Information Sheet, Dr. Alma Solis

To see all interviews in this set, please use the keyword “2003i” in the box on the homepage of this Website.

An Interview with Dr. Maria Alma Solis at the U.S. National Museum of Natural History, August 2003.

Ms. Christianne Bird interviewed Dr. Solis.

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

That’s a very good question, actually. The junior college I went to had a biological station in northeastern Mexico that was a cloud forest, and I grew up in south Texas. It’s very arid, agricultural, very dry, and with no big trees. The first time I went to this cloud forest, I hadn’t seen anything like it, and that got me hooked on Biology in general. I was interested in plants first because this place had orchids and huge trees that were incredible. I actually studied plants for a while, but they didn’t hold my interest. However, I became interested in insects that feed on plants. My Master’s research was on leafmining moths. Their caterpillars mine within leaves and become adult moths that are about 1 millimeter in wing span, tip to tip. I performed my Master’s research at a biological station after I finished my undergraduate degree.

1b. Did you have an interest in entomology when you were a kid?

No, a lot of people in this field start out by collecting butterflies. Where I come from, I was told never to touch an insect.

2. What specific kind of work do you do?

I’m a taxonomist. I classify insects, and I’m a world specialist on Snout Moths.

3. What taxonomic groups of arthropods are your assignments?

Snout moths! Pyraloidea. This name has to do with fire, because the scientist who first described pyralids described a shiny, bright yellow species that reminded him of fire.

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

Good question. All my projects are exciting. I discover something new all the time! It’s a very difficult question from that standpoint. I guess I have to say my Master’s thesis was probably the most interesting because I had so much to learn. I had not taken any Entomology courses, and I didn’t know anything about Entomology. All I had was a little moth book. So I went into a cloud forest in Mexico and started rearing caterpillars never having done anything like that before. Then I started discovering the concept of parasites and parasitoids, I had never seen them before, and I thought I had discovered new phenomena, which turned out it to be well known by other biologists. And, just being alone in the forest for 3 months, collecting things I knew nothing about was a very liberating experience that gave me a lot of confidence. When you do something like that, you can do just about anything. I mean, most people are afraid to be alone in their own houses. And I learned a lot about Lepidoptera in general (you know, moths and butterflies) although I was rearing and collecting mostly moths. I learned a lot about tropical moths and about their biologies.

5. What keeps you excited about your profession?

What keeps me excited, and the reason I chose the profession is that I discover at least one new thing every day. It’s either a new species, a new structure, a new name, or a new species locality in the world because I work on a world basis. So, I’m constantly learning new things every time I work on something that I’ve not worked on something before. I also learn about biologies, host plants, or what the caterpillars are doing or not doing. In fact, right now, when you came in, I was working with a botanist in Peru who is the world expert on a weird plant family the Loasaceae. About 5 years ago, he sent me some moths, and he didn’t pack them well so they disintegrated into little pieces, and I couldn’t identify them. This time, he sent me some really nice specimens, and I was able to give him a species name. We were having a dialogue about whether this moth just feeds on the one plant he found it on or on other plants as well. So, it’s constant learning. I was also working on another moth today that feeds on ferns in southeast Asia that the United States Government wants to bring into the southeastern U.S. to control the Old World Climbing Fern. U.S.D.A. scientists can’t bring foreign organisms into the U.S. until they know exactly what they are and have done food-preference testing, to determine if herbivorous organisms, for example, are going to eat desirable native plants. I’ve also had a big project in Costa Rica for approximately the last 15 years, and I just returned from 2 weeks in Costa Rica. I’m also working on another project in northwestern Mexico funded by the government of Mexico, so I have a lot of different things going on. Is this answer short enough for you? Ha, ha!

6. Would you like to work on any arthropod group that is currently outside your assignment?

So you mean, do I have any other entomological interests? Well, I guess now the group I work on has about 16,000 described species in the world, and I simply don’t have enough time in my own lifetime to work on everything I want to work on in this group. I was accepted to graduate school to work on slugs, but I was also accepted at the University of Texas at Austin to work on insect-host-plant interrelationships. So I gave up the slugs, and well, I think I made a good decision. I don’t have any strong feelings for arthropods outside of the Lepidoptera because I didn’t come into entomology as a child looking at insects in general, so my first entomological interest has always been moths in general. I have a lot of interest in what other moth people are doing. My husband works on Butterflies, and I learn about Butterflies by osmosis. So, specifically, no, I don’t have time to work on other insects.

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

I would like to think so, yes.

I have about 15 years until retirement, so it’s not going to happen anytime soon. I like to think that I enjoy what I do very much, and I feel that I’m very lucky to have a job that allows me to do what I want to do, and that I’m doing something useful, for example, for the U.S. government and working with all the arthropod identifiers at ports of interest. I get questions from all over the world concerning the groups that I work on, so I think that upon retirement I would probably work on groups that don’t have any economic significance. In other words, no big pests or anything like that. I think that there is one group that I wanted to work on that I would work on if I were to retire tomorrow. It’s called the Chrysogiant (spelling?) group. It includes the very bizarre Sloth Moths. Sloth Moth adults live on the backs of Sloths in Central and South America. Sloths usually move along the tops of trees until they have to defecate. They climb down trees and defecate on the ground. The adult moths move off the body of a sloth, they mate, and the females lay their eggs in sloth fecal matter. Their caterpillars eat the fecal matter and pupate in it. The Sloth Moths are biologically terribly interesting, and a very diverse group of insects. Males have pockets on their forewings. There’s a spine that holds a forewing and hindwing together; and in the male, the spine goes into a pocket, it’s highly developed, and it produces a sound which attracts females, supposedly. I don’t think anyone has really worked on it recently. There are some pyraloids that are big and brightly colored with oranges and reds. Then there are some that are very small and really ugly. But for the most part, they tend to be really beautiful. Nobody really knows too much about their biologies. I think they’d be very interesting.

7b. So they seek out Sloths after they become adults?

Yes, and the adults look like the fur of Sloths. They’re camouflaged. They’re really brown and ugly adult moths, but their biologies are incredible, and their behaviors are highly synchronized with Sloth biology.

7c. So what do the Sloth Moths feed on then?

The adults probably don’t feed on anything. They have very reduced mouthparts. Insects in general are designed to reproduce and die as adults. But that’s why insects have been so successful and become so diverse, because evolutionarily they often have very different immatures and adults, which are not in direct competition for available resources. What they’re doing is totally different, A caterpillar just eats and eats. Then it changes into an adult that just reproduces and dies. So it’s all very well organized.

7d. So why do they hang around Sloths if they go only in the fecal matter?

Well, do you know how fast a sloth moves? It doesn’t move fast. You often cannot see it move, and so I suspect that it’s an easy target for the Moths; it’s not going to escape them. I think that’s one of the reasons why there is such a moth relationship with sloths instead of, say, cats.

7e. Why don’t they hang out around trees and wait for the Sloth to come down?

Well remember the adults aren’t feeding; they conserve energy. You can’t imagine them like butterflies flying around. Their life span is probably less than a month, and all they’re going to do is reproduce. They don’t have another function but reproduction, in general. Well, I guess some of them do pollinate orchids and things like that, but generally they just reproduce.

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

Evolution is such a slow thing, I don’t think I ever see it personally. I see evidence of it. The real difficult thing of working inside an office and working with dead insects is that you have all this material that was collected from Brazil to Mexico and sometimes you know what the altitude is, what kinds of plants were there, or if it is arid or not, but you don’t really know what the climate is, and why the climate may have caused those changes. It’s very hard when you’re not out there in the field actually looking at them.

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

Well, of course. It’s extremely important and that’s one of the reasons I got involved in the Costa Rica project. It’s not just a way of getting to know the fauna, but the Costa Rican government has made an incredible effort to teach its people about conservation and why it’s important. And when you’re part of something like that, every little thing you do has an impact, whether you know it or not.

10. What is your most remarkable “bug” encounter?

I’ve had so many! Which one should I tell you about which one isn’t X-rated? Well, the more interesting things I’ve done have dealt with collecting these moths in difficult localities. In the early years of the Costa Rican project, a lot of times we were crossing rivers with water up to our necks, and all our collecting equipment on our heads to keep it from getting wet. You’re walking along the river and see huge fish pass by you. You’re walking along the forest and see these monkeys come by, or parrots. Almost all the fieldwork I’ve done has been incredible. From that stand point that you’re always running into animals, not just insects, but different kinds of animals. The remarkableness of it is that you’re always seeing different things, not just insects.

11. What is your most dangerous “bug” encounter?

It’s kind of X-rated, well, I’ll tell you a story and you can decide whether you want to use it or not. I was in Paraguay for 3 months with a colleague. I was carrying the trap, and he had the machete and was clearing the forest because if you can’t put a trap in a very enclosed area, you’re not going to get all of the species that you want. I was standing there and all of a sudden, I felt an incredible burning sensation at the top of my thigh. I put the trap down and took my pants down. At that time, he heard something and turned around, got embarrassed and turned my back to him. Ants had crawled up my pants; it just took them seconds. Their bites were incredibly painful. The moral of the story is whenever you’re around insects, tuck your pants into your socks, no matter how goofy it looks because it will protect you from just about anything.

12. If you had to choose between a vertebrate (“animal”) or arthropod (“bug”) for a pet which would you choose?

For a pet, to like cuddle up with? Let me think, how would I cuddle up with a caterpillar? Actually, you’re going to think this is weird, but I’ve never had a pet. I did have an imaginary cat for a while until people thought that I was really strange, so I gave that up. I think if I had to invest time, it would probably have to be on a caterpillar. But they don’t live very long, so it’s you can’t keep one long. Caterpillars turn into adults which can fly away. So I guess that’s it.

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