LAWRENCE — This year for spring break, students in Andrew Short’s KU entomology course won’t be headed to the beaches of Cancun or South Padre Island. Instead, they’ll head to the jungles of Suriname, a country many people would struggle to find on a map.
Located on the northeastern coast of South America, Suriname is home to dense tropical forests. It is crisscrossed by rocky rivers, roads that grow narrow until they dead-end, gold mining, and animal and plant species that are still new to science.
Research expeditions to document species of insects, birds, reptiles, fish and mammals in Suriname have caught the interest of writers such as Richard Conniff, who recently joined Short and a full team of scientists in Suriname for an article published this month in Smithsonian magazine.
For several years, KU students have been participating in Suriname entomology field expeditions with Short, who is curator of entomology at the KU Biodiversity Institute and associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. In 2015, Short received a $700,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to fund the research into understanding more about the evolution, distribution and habitats of aquatic insects, and to bring undergraduate and graduate students into the program.
Students participating in the course and expeditions learn various methods of trapping and collecting insects, whether they are in aquatic habitats, terrestrial, flying through the air, or even inhabiting the pools of water trapped by plants at the base of their leaves.
Not all students who go on Biodiversity Institute expeditions are studying biology. Alumni Tom and Jann Rudkin of Los Gatos, California, have provided funds for students pursing degrees such as journalism, illustration, photography and textile arts to experience research expeditions alongside scientific staff and students who are pursing degrees in biology.
In 2016, Gabriel O’Connor, a KU junior majoring in film studies, went on the Biodiversity Institute expedition to Suriname. He created two film projects from the experience: one focuses on the research conducted by Andrew Short and the team of students in Suriname. The other, a longer film, distilled Gabriel’s personal experience with the Suriname trip.
This year, as Andrew prepares to head back to Suriname, he is hoping to track down a few species that are known, but little has been studied about the habitats they occupy.
“The surrounding region of this year’s field site has been impacted by gold mining, so I’m also interested to see how that has affected the local fauna,” Short said.
Suriname isn’t the only country on Short’s research list. He was recently selected as a 2017-2018 Fulbright Scholar to Brazil, where he will work extensively with colleagues at the National Institute of Amazonian Research (INPA) in Manaus to expand the geographic scope of his research over the next two years.
Five undergraduate entomology students will go on the expedition to Suriname: Miranda Blanchard of Lawrence; Ben Johnson of Wichita; Shannon Pelkey of De Soto and Alex Kohlenberg and Tanner Myers, both of Louisburg. They will be joined by Stephen Baca, a KU graduate student studying entomology, as well as several students and faculty from the National University of Suriname.
The group departs for Paramaribo on March 15.