Click on image to enlarge.
Title: Information Sheet, Dr. Don Davis

An Interview with Dr. Don Davis at the U.S. National Museum of Natural History, August 2003. Mr. Matt Minor interviewed Dr. Davis. I added information (some within square brackets) to clarify the interview. E. M. B. 2003.

1. Dr. Davis, what inspired you to enter the field of entomology?

I think it was that I just collected everything. Many people I know do not remember exactly when they first became interested in entomology. I grew up on a farm in Oklahoma where I had lots of land to roam on. When you live on a farm, you cannot help but notice everything around you. You just get interested and want to spend all of your time out in nature. I started collecting insects seriously when I was about 13. Also, I used to collect cow bones and pretend they were dinosaur bones. One time, for example, I found a pit full of cow bones and I dug them up, brought them back to the farm, and tried to assemble them. I was really geared to work with a large collection, so I kept collecting for a long time. I guess I never really quit.

2. What specific kind of work do you do?

I work on Microlepidoptera. [Microlepidoptera comprises a group of moth families, usually with very small adult forms.] These are the more primitive [ancestral] members of the Order Lepidoptera and supposedly were the first lepidopteran group to appear on Earth. They date back into the Jurassic Period, about ? years ago. There are few families that I work on from the Jurassic that are still living. Certainly some of the families were around in the early Cretaceous Period, about ? years ago. I like working on these primitive things because it is like working on living fossils. They have interesting patterns of distribution, which follow the movement of the continents over time. You can see this in the distribution of the species in the groups I study, so we are talking about groups that have been here 100 million years or so or even much longer. The fossil record is very poor in the Lepidoptera as you may know, so we really do not know and will probably never know when lepidopterans first appeared unless we get very lucky and find the right fossil material.

3. What taxonomic groups of arthropods are your assignments?

The Microlepidoptera I work on are the “lower forms.” the more primitive forms. This includes some groups of economically important moths, such as Clothes Moths. I have also been working on a synopsis of all my work, which contains a sheet for every species that I have worked on. There are about 30 or 40 families that I work on or am supposed to have some knowledge about. There are approximately 122 families in the Lepidoptera. There are many groups that I work on, but remember these are the relic groups. They are on their ways out [going extinct]; they’re not coming in [forming new species]. I work on a few families of non-leaf-mining moths and several families of leaf-mining moths. I like working with leaf-mining moths because I am interested in biology [in addition to taxonomy]. One nice thing is that you can go back and look at species that have been here since the Jurassic Period and study their biology if you can find them in nature. Some of these are very primitive moths that still have chewing mouthparts [rather than sucking or non-feeding mouthparts which occur in the majority of moth species.] The adults feed on pollen and fern spores, which most Lepidoptera which appeared in the last 50 million years, or so, don’t do. There are also many important economic groups in my study area. The leaf-miner moths contain many important economical species.

The Citrus Leaf-miner came into the New World a few years ago, and the introduction of this species is strange. A researcher described this insect about 150 years ago in Southeast Asia, but no one saw it in the New World until recently. This leaf-miner is a serious Citrus pest in Asia and suddenly showed up in the New World. The USDA had been worried about it for a long time and thought it would show up in the U.S., eventually. The odd thing is it appeared in three places: the West Indies, Florida, and the Mediterranean Region. How did the species do this? One answer is that there was an unusual air current. This putative air current happened about every few hundred years or less frequently. However, the Citrus Leaf-miner can be transmitted only on live plants. This moth pupates on living Citrus. Unlike many other species, this moth does not pupate on artifacts, such as crates or packing material. Many insects move to different parts of the world on artifacts. Someone, or something, had to bring living Citrus with the Leaf-miners to the new locations, but how could so much living material get into the Caribbean Area? Now this moth occurs all the way down into northern Chile and even in California.

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

My more exciting projects involved finding new families of lepidopterans. Researchers establish one, or two, new lepidopteran families every decade. I found a new family in the Patagonian Region down in southern South America. I worked on two projects down there for 5 months, so I traveled around a great deal. My colleagues and I found quite a few things that were not previously described in the scientific literature. Working in southern South American was a pleasure. It is exciting and interesting. I got all the way down to Chiloe Island. It is about as far, as you would want to go because farther south the weather gets colder and worse and worse even in the middle of the summer.

Further, I think that anytime you work in Equatorial Africa, or anywhere there is big game, you are going to have some close encounters and exciting trips. One time I set out light traps in South Africa in Hluhluwe Umfolozi Park. I set out several traps over a period of 3 or 4 days, because I had permission to collect there. Park officials asked me when I started if I wanted a gun carrier to go with me. No one asked me that before, and I said, "No." They also said that they had a pride of Lions there, but they had lost them. “If you see them when you are out wondering through the Park, let us know where they are,” they said. The rangers liked researchers to sample at night, or early in the day, so that people touring would not see us out of vehicles. Tourists are not supposed to get out of cars, and the rangers did not want the tourists see us walking around. This may have encouraged tourists to get out of their cars. They said, “When you set your traps, do it at night or early in the morning so tourists do not see you.” Therefore, I set up traps at night in the dark, and I went back early the next day. I set the traps on a dry riverbed, and the next morning I started to go down an embankment, because the traps were about a quarter mile from the bridge where I was. I looked, and there was the pride of Lions around one of my light traps. The UV light fascinated the pride for some reason, so I went back and honked the horn of my vehicle. There was brush along side the river, and the Lions retreated into the cover. The trap was just sitting there, and if it sat there much longer, it would bake because the Sun was coming up. The specimens, Microlepidoptera would be ruined in the heat so I had to go get them, and I decided that I had to empty the trap even if the Lions came out of the forest. I knew I did not want to run if they appeared, because that would have been the worst thing I could have done. I would just walk backwards, pound on the trap that was made out of aluminum, and make as much noise as I could. I never saw them, but I know they did not go too far from my trapping site. I probably walked right by them the night before and did not even notice them. When I got back, I told the ranger that I had found the Park’s pride of Lions.

5. What keeps you excited about your profession?

When I was a graduate student, I visited here [U.S. National Museum of Natural History, part of the Smithsonian Institution] and there were people working here, who just were not doing much work. As a graduate student, I was looking at jobs here, and I have always wanted to work here. My collection built up over the years and in high school, I started entering science fairs. I entered those fairs, and my senior year's national science fair trip was to Washington, D.C. This was great because that meant I would be able to work with the Smithsonian collection and meet many people in the profession. I have always wanted to work here as long as I can remember. I grew up reading William Beebe books and stuff like that in junior high. Entomology was the kind of field I wanted to go into because I loved to travel. I loved to camp out. This to me was just the plum job. As a graduate student, I visited this Museum, and there were people not doing their work, looking like they had lost all interest. When I first joined the staff here, I was always curious why people were like this. These people were sitting on some of the top jobs in the world, and they did not go out in the field. They just lost all interest. How do you keep excitement about your job? Once you have lost that excitement about what you want to do, you are dead meat. You are just occupying space. I think that is a clue to anyone in a job field, whatever field you are going into. You have to inspire yourself. You cannot wait for someone to pat you on the back or give you an award. Do not expect anyone to be behind you constantly pushing you. You are in there because you want to do this kind of work. You must never lose sight of the reasons why you wanted to do it, or else get out and do something else you want to do. There is no reason why you should lose your basic interest in your job. You once had it; there is no reason why you cannot keep it. Unfortunately, some people experience many difficulties, some of them not self-imposed, which can cause them to lose interest. I have never had those kinds of problems.

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

If yes, what is it? Why? No, I cannot really think of any other arthropod group to work on. I have got more work on Microlepidotera right now than I will ever be able to complete. I have never really had any regrets [about working on Microlepidoptera] or anything like that. I research on insects with very diverse groups which contain many species. Due to their small sizes, the Microlepidoptera have been poorly studied. In fact, researchers and I did a survey on tropical leaf-miners and found that possibly 99% of the species have never been collected or studied in any life stage. In other words, there are no records of them in any museum around the world. When you are faced with that kind of diversity, it is not necessary to look at another taxonomic group because there is so much to do with the leaf-miners. It is frustrating because there is so much to do and so little time to do it.

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

Absolutely, I will probably retire in 6 to 8 years. I could actually retire right now if I wanted to, but I would still be working here, so there would not be much point in my retiring. I will probably keep working until I drop dead. We have older curators here; I think Fenner Chase, an invertebrate zoologist, celebrated his ninetieth birthday about 2 years ago. Dr. Fenner was the chair of zoology when I arrived here in 1961. My predecessor was also taking rugged field trips up to the age of about 83, and I hope to do the same thing.

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

Researchers do not know enough about these leaf-miners and have not monitored them to look for such changes. My colleagues and I have gone back to places we had worked and have seen changes and disturbances in the environments. I have been working a great deal in Costa Rica on the arthropods of La Selva. My colleagues and I have traveled around Costa Rica. I visited a very nice mid-elevation site with a wet, very lush forest; and we collected many nice things there, probably all new species. A year later, I went back to the site because I needed more specimens of a particular species. So I went back there, and it was totally wiped out, nothing but Oil Palms and oil rigs. The whole area was gone in 12 months, probably less than 12 months because the Oil Palm rig was fairly worn. Other researchers and I knew that disturbance was coming because there was a Caterpillar track going through the forest a year earlier. This was a hint that people were building a road.

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

Oh yes, I mean we have enough missing links in the fossil record. [We don’t need to extinguish species to make more missing links.] One of the nice things about the group I am working on is that I am really looking at living-fossil material. These groups originated about 100 through 150 million years, and many of these groups are still living and can be studied if you can get to them fast enough [before they go extinct]. The areas where they are located are, unfortunately, are very restricted and limited. I tend to work in the remnants of Gondwanaland. These are in Australia, the southern part of South America, and the temperate forests of South Africa. I want to get to these remnants before the bulldozers destroy them. Saving these areas is extremely important because we do not have a fossil record [for microlepidopteran groups that live there]. We probably will never find a fossil record for Microlepidoptera. The good news about working with insects is that many of the living-fossil groups are still around. These are groups that were contemporaneous with early through late dinosaurs. I look at some paleophages and wonder what the forest was like 80 million years ago when they lived. [A paleophage is a plant-feeding insect in a group that originated many millions of years ago.] You could image collecting these things millions of years ago, with large dangerous animals including dinosaurs that you would not want to be around, necessarily. You are still able to find remnants of these ancient forests. Conservation is a key element, and hopefully enough sample areas of these primitive forests can be saved, but again we must be aware that they are disappearing very fast. The pulp industry in particular is bringing in tree species that are more useful for making pulp. The natural forests that are there are not particularly good for many types of forest products so the wood industry replaces the natural forests with faster-growing, much more productive forests from its standpoint.

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

Maybe just finding paleophages in the first place, because I realized I was onto a scientifically interesting subject. Just a few years ago in Costa Rica, colleagues and I found the most primitive family of Lepidoptera, the Micropterygidae. As I mentioned, the members of this family have chewing mouthparts. We did not realize they occurred anywhere in, or near, the tropics. I have collected them in Patagonia, an area where you expect to find primitive organisms, but my colleagues and I had just written off Amazonian lowlands and near tropical forests including Central America as an areas where such animals simply do not occur any more. We would expect them along the Andean Chain at high elevations. Indeed, we found one species in Ecuador at high elevations. When I arrived in Costa Rica in 2001, a person working on ferns had just found some specimens that he thought were only flies swarming around ferns. Low and behold, they were micropterygids, and they swarmed by the hundreds, and fed on fern spores. Again, this moth-fern association probably goes back 150 million years. One hundred and fifty million years ago, they were probably feeding on fern spores, so it was exciting to study them. In fact, we are writing a paper on this group, and we have two new genera and four new species. It’s very hard to find these micropterygids, but if you are in the right place at the right time you can literally find these things by the hundreds.

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

My Lion encounter may be one of my more dangerous field encounters, but I have also had many others. When I work in Costa Rica, I am always worried about stepping on a poisonous snake. I have come very close to it. In La Selva, Costa Rica, there is an abundance of poisonous snakes. There are about a dozen species or so that occur there. There are Bushmasters and Fer-de-lances [Bothropos atrox]; I think those are the worse. We were collecting there in April, and there was an Eyelash Viper. For some reason this species tends to rest on vegetation that is about shoulder high. The first day we went out into the field my wife, Mignon, came with me. She usually goes out in the field with me; she is an entomologist, too. We were heading up a mountain path, and I was looking at leaf mines, so I was looking very closely at the vegetation. She went through a batch of brush, and I was about 20, or 30, feet behind her. I found the Eyelash Viper that she had just brushed against, and it was just sitting there. One of the entomologists was beating the brush. He had a big sheet that he held under the brush, he hit the brush with a stick, and collected whatever fell onto the sheet. An Eyelash Viper dropped onto the sheet. Eyelash Vipers are very small and very poisonous.

In Sri Lanka, I was driving along the road, and I saw this big black thing lying across it. It was a little after midnight, and another person was in the car assisting me. I slammed on the brakes and said, “Someone's ran over a python.” I hopped out the car, but my assistant would not get out; he did not know what the black thing was. It was illuminated by the car’s headlights, so I could see it well and walked up to it. It was about 4 inches in diameter and coal black. I knelt down beside it, and saw that it was flattened and straight as a board. I had never seen a snake in that state when it was alive, so I thought it was dead. It was alive, though, and moving very slowly across the road. It was a King Cobra. I thought, “My God, this is not a python!” It was a Cobra. It had to be a King Cobra, I looked at the road, and it was wide enough for two cars to drive past one another. We decided that the road was about 12 feet across. We could not see the snake’s head or its tail, only its body across the road. It was just one big, long snake, so I just sat there and watched the thing move by. After a while, its tail finally came out the bushes; and as it passed by, I gave it a little tweak as it went by. I did not have a camera with me, but certainly I wish I had. Anyway, I told my Ceylonese friend back at the museum, “You should have seen the King Cobra I saw.” He said, “We do not have native King Cobras in Sri Lanka.” It turned out it was the first record of the King Cobra in Sri Lanka. About 6 months later, he sent me an article with a picture that a German tourist had taken of a 9-foot-long King Cobra beside a road. It was the first evidence that King Cobras even occur in the country.

12. If you had to choose between a vertebrate ("animal") and arthropod ("bug") for a pet that would you choose.

Well, a dog, I do not believe in keeping wild animals as pets, because they are not pets. Now when I was in high school, I collected snakes. I collected everything. My room was nothing more than a zoo. I had at one time at least 18 species of snakes living in my bedroom including rattlesnakes and Copperheads; I guess I called them pets. A few snakes can become accustomed to you. You feed them by hand, and every time you opened their cages, they expected to feed. I had tarantulas and other such things, but now I would just like a dog. I think a dog is the best pet you can get. I have had skunks and Raccoons. All of them have bitten me, so they never really are pets; but when they are young, they are fun and playful. When they get old, you are in trouble. I have even had pet skunks that were not deodorized; I would catch them in the wild. They would tame down enough to the point where they would not spray you, but skunks have sprayed me. Spotted Skunks are weird animals. They are very gentle.

“Dr. Davis, thank you for your interview,” Matt Minor said.

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

update template
�Copyright 2009 Georgetown University