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Title: Information Sheet, Dr. Ronald Ochoa (Acarologist, Mite Man)

An Interview with Dr. Ronald Ochoa, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Beltsville, Maryland, August 2003.

Mr. Toan Chung interviewed Dr. Ochoa.

You can find other interviews in this series by using the keyword “2003i.”

Edited by Edward M. Barrows

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

I was born in Costa Rica, a tiny country blessed with many different ecosystems, including lowland dry forest, lowland rainforest, cloud rainforest, volcanos, and coral reefs.   As a child, I played with lizards as my Tyranosaurus rex and the abejones de tres cachos (three-horned beetles, Family Scarabaeidae) as my Triceratops, starting when I was in kindergarten.   My good friend and college classmate, Francisco Marin (today also an entomologist working with the Agriculture Department in Costa Rica) invited me to see the Museum of Insects of the University of Costa Rica when I was just 12 years old.   My eyes grew really wide when I saw the specimens.   I was so amazed by the variety, colors, shapes, and sizes.   There were so many kinds of insects.   They were a new planet, a new world, to me.   I was hooked on Beetles (Order Coleoptera).   There are so many kinds of them.   In a year I was able to identify almost 80 different families in Coleoptera.   From that moment, I knew that I wanted to be an entomologist.

2.  What specific kind of work do you do?

I work with Mites (Order Acari).   They are not Insects, and are closely related to Spiders.

3.  What taxonomic groups of arthropods are your assignments?

I work with mites that are associated with plants, that is plant-feeding mites.   There are more than 7000 known mite species that are associated with all kind of plants (such as crops, trees, ornamental plants, medicinal plants, weeds, etc).   These mites are in four major families.   Tetranychidae are the Spider Mites.   Tenuipalpidae are the Flat Spider Mites (= False Spider Mites).   The Eriophyoidea (which includes Family Eriophyidae) is the most important plant-feeding mite group.   Eriophyidae includes the Gall Mites, Rust Mites, and Bud Mites.   Each group is named after its kind of damage or habitat on a plant.   Family Tarsonemidae includes the Cyclamen Mite and the Broad Mite.   There are also many mite families that are important because of their effects on animals.   A mite in the Acaridae (Astigmata) and a Varroa mite (Mesostigmata) parasitize Honey Bees.

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

Plant feeding mites of Central America, took me to all Central American countries.   I made hundreds of collections and many slides of specimens and worked with many different scientists and other persons.  

5.  What keeps you excited about your profession?

There are more than 1 million species of mites.   Fewer than 48,000 species have been scientifically described.   Everyday, I have a new, interesting experience.   For example, I obtained some new geographical records of mites and new mite–host-plant associations.   You can go any place on the planet and you will find a mite.   You can go to the White House Garden and sample soil and may find a new species of mite.   This is great!

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

No, but I like to interact with other scientists who work with insects or plants in which mites have roles.   Mites are important in biocontrol of a insect pest or a weed, for example.  

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

If you love truly what you do, you will never retire.   I said not long ago, “I will be happy if I depart while looking at a mite through a microscope.”   There is a saying that I follow often, that I read everytime that I feel low.   ‘The passing of the years will wrinkle our skins but the denial of our goals will wrinkle our souls.”  

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

This is a hard question, involving many topics, opinions, and theories.   Considering mite diversity and numbers of species per area, I would say that almost every day you would encounter a variation, or adaptation, of a mite that will put you on a red alert.   For example, in the Family Tarsonemidae, one of my favorite families, you find species with smooth bodies with short setae [hairs] like most of the species in the genus Tarsonemus through species with very elaborate, ornamented bodies with amazing setae so complicated that you can not describe them with a single word.   These fancy mites are in the genus Excelsotarsonemus.   Why do these mites have such bizarre setae?   Where are these mites from; where do they live?   How do these mites use these setae?   Sure!   You end with more questions than answers, but that is great because you feel the excitement, the challenge, and the quest for and understanding of our environment and the things that live in it.   Working with mites, everyday you see a species that somehow reflects adaptability and selection by natural forces on life.   It is a never ending joy.

Ochoa, R., P. Naskrecki, and R. K. Colwell, R. K.   1995.   Excelsotarsonemus kaliszewskii, a new genus and species from Costa Rica (Acari: Tarsonemidae).   International Journal of Acarology   21(2): 67–74.

Ochoa, R. and B.M. OConnor.   1998.   Two new species of the genus Excelsotarsonemus (Acari: Tarsonemidae).   International Journal of Acarology   24(3): 179–187.

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

Hmmm, yes.   It’s important to understand why it’s important.   How we can work everyday, eat everyday, and enjoy life everyday without caring for the things that give us the means for doing this?   I think many of us know that we should take care of the place where we live and which feeds us, but unfortunately it is our nature to take it for granted.   We can work with computers, books, metals, whatever you want to work with; but every time that we eat or drink, we should be grateful for all the organisms that make it possible for us to have this rich world.   And trust me; mites are part of this beneficial world.

10.  What's your most remarkable bug encounter?

Almost everyday I see or study a mite that makes my head spin 100 miles per hour.   Another remarkable “bug encounter” was when my mite colleague Barry O’Connor, from the University of Michigan, and I where working at the rain forest at La Selva, Costa Rica, with the people of the ALAS Project.   We found a second species of Excelsotarsonemus.   That mite made me work for months trying to figure out the exact shape and use of its elaborate and heavily-ornamented setae.   For several days I held my head in my hand in front a microscope looking at specimens and trying to make sense of beauty and characters of this mite.   I must also mention also another group of mites that are also very impressive.   We were able to capture images of them under an electron scanning microscope.   They are in the genus Tuckerella (Peacock Mites).   Dr. Dave Walter and I independently produced SEM (scanning electron microscopy) images of several of these mites.   If you go to our Websites and look at the pictures of the mites, you can also enjoy the new frontier – a journey to another world – as the Star Trek series says.   As you will see, I do not need to go to outer space to see something that looks out of this world.

11.  What was your most dangerous bug encounter?

Oh boy!   Snakes, insects, volcanos, war; we could discuss these things for days.   However, my trip to El Salvador to work with the Coconut Mite, Aceria guerreronis Keifer, still is on the top of my list.   I balanced myself like a monkey in a palm tree and was held by my neck in an army chopper, as part of collecting and studying this mite which is causing a lot of problems in many countries where coconut production is important.   Honestly I was scared, but I would do all again if that means that I am helping the people to have better food and resources.   In this particular case, the people of El Salvador, the institutions, the army, the farmers all were amazing and generous to me and they deserve the help and support that all of us professionals can give.   I told about my adventure in this article:

Ochoa, R   2001.   "Mite Fire" in El Salvador!   American Entomologist 47(2): 78–82.

13.  If you had to choose between a vertebrate and arthropod for a pet, which would you choose.   Why?

This question is easy to answer.   For many years I had an insect for a pet at work and home.   No, it was not a mite.   Mites are too small.   It was a mantid.   Mantids are so “smart,” and they remember past experiences (as a couple of published scientific paper explain).   I had my first mantis when I was an entomology assistant in the early 1980's.   Mantises are very useful and interesting insects.   Sure females cut of the heads of their mates when they “decide” to have families, but that is another story . . . .   [Don’t be alarmed.   In many mantid species, females do not decapitate their mates.   Editor.]   Thank you.

Online references on Mites and Ticks include:

USDA.   2003.   Acari.   Mites and Ticks.   A Virtual Introduction.   SEL, ARS, PSI, USDA, Beltsville, MD 20705.   Website.   (24 August 2003)

Walter, D.   1999.   Mite Image Gallery.   University of Queensland.   Website.   (24 August 2003)

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