|Eric Quinter is Senior Scientific Assistant in the Entomology (arthropod studies) Department at the American Museum of Natural History. He has been investigating arthropods since he was a kid. Right now, he is studying various species of moths that live on (and eat) bamboo in North America. Actually, it is the caterpillars that eat the bamboo.
We asked him how he decided to become an entomologist.
"I grew up in a rural area of Pennsylvania, and there weren't many other kids around to play with. I didn't have an awful lot to do except go out in the woods and play with bugs and plants. So I got interested in all of nature simultaneously. I was interested in astronomy and birds and wildflowers and just about everything at the same time. My mother was a geologist, and she encouraged me and pointed me in the right direction. When I was seven, she bought me a little butterfly-collecting kit for my birthday. It had a little dinky net in it, some pins, and a tiny little booklet, and that's what got me going.
"I studied chemistry through college, and I thought I was going to be a chemist professionally, but it wasn't very long before my adolescent interest in insects won out. I have never regretted it because it's an area where someone--anyone--who is patient and observant can make original contributions."
That is one of the things Eric loves about entomology. "In order to come up with a new discovery in physics or chemistry, for example, you have to know everything that all the other scientists already know just to start. With entomology, all you have to do is go out there and look, and with enough perseverance you'll find something."
Using himself as an example, Eric told us that so far he has found 15 species of bamboo borer moths within a single family. "Ten of those had never been seen before I discovered them, and the other five are among the rarest things on the continent." Eric said this with pride, but then he added, "Now we find out they're not rare at all. You just look for them and know how to find them, and there they are."
Eric told us that it is not only experts who make important discoveries in entomology. Students and hobbyists often find new species as well. The main thing you need is to be a good observer. And, he admitted, you also need a lot of patience.
"You don't need to be an Einstein to come up with brand-new information in entomology. A kid can make a new observation with insects just by finding caterpillars, for example, on plants and raising them to see what they are.
"That's what I had to do. There were no books--there still are no books--that illustrate the majority of caterpillars of North American butterflies and moths. So you find this neat caterpillar and ask, 'What is it?' The only one way to find out is to raise it and see what it turns into. It's a fascinating process. And if you do that enough times, sooner or later you're going to get something that no one knew before. It may be a familiar insect, but no one ever knew what its caterpillar looked like."
For Eric, the thrill of discovery has never waned. "I've collected as long as thirty years in one particular place in Pennsylvania, from the time I was a kid. In the last year I collected there I was getting things I'd never seen in the previous 29 years. You can never exhaust the cornucopia of insects," he said with a broad smile.
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