Leslie Saul Gershenz, Conservation Entomologist

Leslie SaulGershenz, Conservation Entomologist


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Introduction to Conservation Entomology

AnInterview with Leslie Saul Gershenz

Introductionto Conservation Entomology

Convincing the public of the economic and biological benefitsof maintaining insect diversity is extremely important. Manyentomologists combine their passion for entomology with anaptitude for communicating. They are involved in education andoutreach in order to encourage appreciation for insects andfoster support for programs to preserve biological diversity,also called biodiversity. These individuals can be found innatural history museums, nature centers, zoos, conservationagencies, and extension offices. Biodiversity measures thenumbers and variety of species in an ecosystem or habitat. At adeeper level, it denotes genetic diversity that contributes tothe population dynamics of species and provides a measure fortheir richness and interdependence.

Systematics is the study of the diversity of organisms andthe relationships between them. This discipline includestaxonomy, the classification of organisms. Systematics isimportant because it serves as an information-retrieval systemand provides the means of predicting the distribution ofcharacteristics among organisms. Systematic entomologists workin the laboratory and in the field, classifying insectsaccording to their presumed, natural relationships. To protectbiological diversity, they identify and catalog new species.Systematic entomologists are employed by universities,government agencies, and museums.

Biodiversity is accomplished by restoring ecologicalhabitats. Entomologists involved in restoration are employed byuniversities, and federal and state governments; they work inthe lab or field rebuilding threatened habitats or ecosystems.Others are conducting research using insect populations as anindex of ecological conditions.

The future of conservation entomology:

  • The future of conservation entomology will be shaped by a variety of factors including the vast array of scientific, societal, and environmental issues that transcend the science.
  • The interaction between private interests, politics, and public perception on the relevance of biodiversity will have a profound influence on future directions in this area through the establishment of funding priorities and mechanisms.
  • Entomologists have the tremendous task ahead of them to convince society of the fundamental importance of non-pest insects to the physical and cultural preservation of future generations.

Interviewwith Leslie Saul Gershenz

Leslie Saul Gershenz is the Insect Zoo Director at the SanFrancisco Zoo in California. She joined the zoo in 1977 asco-coordinator of the Raptor Breeding and Research Program. In1979, she was instrumental in piloting the first insect zoo inthe western United States, and, in 1980, she developed an insectfair to highlight insects and the San Francisco Insect Zoo.

Saul wears many hats in her current position. Herresponsibilities include the acquisition and propagation of liveanimals and plant collections, procurement of grants, and thedesign and management of public exhibits. She also directseducational programs and teaches. Saul studied ecology andsystematics at San Francisco State University, where shereceived her BS. degree.

When did you become interested inentomology?

I discovered my fascination with insects and other animals at a very early age. I remember my first encounters with insects—catching fireflies on warm summer evenings, marveling at the beautiful colors of butterflies, and watching ants scurrying across my path. I made my first insect collection at summer camp. However, it wasn't until college that I became interested in incorporating this curiosity into my career. After my first class in entomology at San Francisco State University, I was hooked—I knew I wanted to be an entomologist. After that, I took every entomology class the university offered.

What made you want to become an entomologist?

Well, I found insects amazingly interesting. Ecology, behavior, and insect–plant interactions particularly intrigued me. I found that I enjoyed working with other entomologists and shared many of their interests. I really enjoyed discovering new things about insects and their complex interactions in nature. I knew there would always be more to discover and believed it was incredibly important for everyone to know more about insects. After all, they are the dominant group of animals on terrestrial earth!

Can you describe your typical day, if there is such a thing?

Managing an insect exhibit is very interesting because the work is so diverse. Each day is unique. My responsibilities range from developing new exhibits to research to education to preparing detailed reports. One minute I may be looking up research articles on carrion beetles to determine their proper care and to develop an exhibit to reflect their natural history. The next minute, I am teaching a class on insects and biodiversity to children and teachers, and next, I'm foraging for the right plant to feed our new Ceanothus caterpillars. At the end of the day I might be preparing a permit application to bring a new species to our exhibit. All through this, the phone is ringing. We receive calls from people not only in the San Francisco area but around the world with questions about insects and other arthropods.

What is the best part of your job?

Overall, I enjoy the educational aspect of my job—getting people excited about insects and promoting their interest in entomology. Specifically, my favorite part of the job is going out to the field to look for new insects to display, which helps people to transform their fascination into understanding and appreciation. I have field-collected insect colonies and specimens in countries such as Trinidad, New Guinea, and Malaysia. I'll never forget the excitement of my first major collection expedition to Costa Rica. We arrived at the field station late at night and walked the paths with flashlights. We were surrounded by a symphony of sound. It was so exciting and every leaf held another insect—each one unique and mysterious. I had read about the biodiversity in tropical rain forests, but experiencing it firsthand was incredible.

What is the most difficult part of your job?

The most difficult part of my job is having too much work to do and too little time. There is a great need for more entomologists. Also, there are many reports and paperwork to prepare. In addition to inventory, budget, and accounting reports, I am responsible for researching, preparing, and securing permits for all acquisitions of live invertebrates and plants from the California Department of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and agencies within the country of origin.

What is the most challenging thing about being an entomologist?

The most challenging aspect of being an entomologist could also be considered the best part of being an entomologist. There is so much to learn in the field of entomology that an entomologist will never become bored. The study of entomology could fill a thousand lifetimes. There are over one million species of insects named and many, many more—some say as many as 10 to 30 million—that have not yet been discovered. That leaves a lot of territory to be explored.

Is being an entomologist as you imagined it would be?

I don't think I had any preconceived notion of what being an entomologist would be like, but it's turned out to be a fantastic adventure.

Are you glad you became an entomologist?

I feel incredibly lucky that I chose entomology as a career. It has been a wonderful journey of learning. Every day I learn something new about insects. I've found that entomologists are wonderful people—nice, intelligent, and always helpful. I've enjoyed working among such professional and conscientious colleagues.

I have had the opportunity to travel to exotic and fascinating places like the rain forests of South America and Borneo and the deserts of California and Arizona to collect insects. As Insect Zoo Director, I can combine my love of science and art by creating educational exhibits on cultural entomology such as ancient cricket cages of China, insect photography, and insects as inspiration for art, design, and literature.

What do you think students need to know about being an entomologist? Do you think their perception differs from reality?

Many people seem to think that entomologists only do research on insects that damage agricultural crops. However, many entomologists work in disciplines such as biodiversity conservation and ecology. Also, zoo work is not always as glamorous as people think. Much of the work is quite repetitive, such as washing and cleaning cages. There are a lot of routine tasks involved in all animal care.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to become an entomologist?

Approach school seriously. Take as much science and math as possible to provide you with a strong background. Study hard and try and get the best grades you can. Expose yourself to some hands-on experience in entomology and biology by volunteering at a museum, science center, or zoo to see which type of job appeals to you most. Join an entomology club. Interacting with people who share your interests can help you decide if you want to make entomology your career.