- The famed entomologist Terry L. Erwin died on May 11, 2020, at the age of 79.
- Erwin was a prolific scholar and is perhaps best known for his estimate of the number of species on the planet.
- At the time of his death, Erwin was serving as a researcher as well as the curator of the Coleoptera beetle collection at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.
- Erwin is remembered by those who knew him as a passionate scientist with “a wonderfully generous spirit.”
The famed entomologist Terry L. Erwin, a prolific scholar who revolutionized the scientific understanding of the diversity of life on Earth and set up some of the world’s first global conservation programs, died on May 11, 2020, at the age of 79. Those who knew him and worked with him remembered him as a beloved mentor and friend to many.
“Terry was among the most influential entomologists of his generation, using his deep expertise in the taxonomy and ecology of beetles to catalyze the modern sciences of biodiversity and tropical forest conservation,” Kirk Johnson, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, said in a statement.
Erwin is perhaps best known for his estimate of the number of species on the planet. In the early 1980s, he fogged whole trees in the tropics with insecticide and caught the fallout in sheets to determine the diversity of arthropods in the canopy. He used that number to estimate that there may be up to 30 million arthropod species living on the Earth, a figure that was much higher than previous estimates of around 1.5 million and one that “revolutionized the study of biodiversity,” Johnson said.
The resulting paper from this study, published in 1982, has been cited more than 1,300 times and his ideas have made their way into pop culture (see the bumper sticker and Gary Larson cartoon inspired by Erwin). His method of fogging also paved the way for a new generation of canopy biologists and taxonomists to explore the world above.
“Terry Erwin’s work changed our perspectives on biodiversity, and I was fortunate to have walked in his footsteps,” Margaret Lowman, director of the TREE Foundation, told Mongabay in an email. “His cutting-edge approach to bring canopy arthropods down to the forest floor led to our understanding that millions of critters live above our heads … Thanks to Terry, the world now recognizes that an enormous proportion of biodiversity (mostly beetles!) inhabits the treetops. He will be missed, but his legacy is lasting.”
During his long and productive career, Erwin published more than 300 scholarly papers. He described four new tribes, 22 new genera, and 439 new species of insects. He held academic appointments at the University of Maryland, Auburn University, Wake Forest University, and the University of Missouri, and was the editor-in-chief of the systematics journal ZooKeys.
More than 50 species of insects have been named in his honor.
“His career would be considered very productive just based on his publications in beetle systematics alone, but he also spawned a series of scientific concepts and tremendously influenced the way we think about biodiversity,” said Scott Miller, deputy undersecretary at the Smithsonian Institution and a friend and colleague of Erwin’s. “Throughout, he sought to connect systematics, ecology, informatics, and other disciplines, and to mentor the next generation of scientists.”
Erwin also sought to make biodiversity information more readily accessible. He understood the value of the information contained in museum collections and was an early proponent of databasing individual insect specimens and collections as a whole, according to Miller.
“Terry was part of a long lineage of esteemed biologists such as Darwin, JBS Haldane, and Philip Darlington who were intrigued by the diversity of beetles,” Adrian Forsyth, a noted tropical biologist and longtime friend and colleague of Erwin’s, told Mongabay. “In the field or in the National Museum of Natural History he was always ‘on’ — alert, energized, and inspiring to colleagues and students. There are hundreds of students in the Amazon and beyond who learned from Terry what a determined field biologist and talented taxonomist could do to fundamentally improve our understanding of the living richness of this Planet.”
“Terry combined being a brilliant field biologist (with a ‘passion for beetles’) with a wonderfully generous spirit: a joy to know and converse with,” Thomas Lovejoy, professor of environmental science and policy at George Mason University and a longtime colleague of Erwin’s, told Mongabay in an email.
Terry L. Erwin was born in St. Helena, California, on Dec. 1, 1940. His father was a racecar driver and sheet-metal worker and his mother was a government clerk. As a young man, he enjoyed fishing with his grandfather and building hot-rod cars.
Erwin attended San Jose State College where he studied under the well-known coleopterist, or beetle scientist, J. Gordon Edwards. As an undergraduate, Erwin solved the complicated taxonomy of the Californian bombardier beetle. Terry worked his way through college with a job in the “asbestos” department at Mare Island Naval Shipyard, where nuclear submarines were built.
His love of beetles continued, and for his dissertation, he studied global bombardier beetle fauna under the mentorship of George E. Ball at the University of Alberta, Canada. After receiving his Ph.D. in 1969, Erwin began working at the entomology department at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in 1970.
At the time of his death, Erwin was serving as a researcher as well as the curator of the museum’s Coleoptera beetle collection.
“Terry was an unfailingly encouraging colleague who worked hard his whole professional career exploring and explaining the diversity of carabid beetles and ultimately of life on earth,” said Peter Raven, president emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden, a friend and colleague to Erwin in the study of tropical biology for more than 50 years.
“His exploration of the beauty and diversity of his favorite beetles made many of us appreciate life more deeply.”
More information about Terry Erwin’s life and career can be found in the interview “Terry L. Erwin: She had a black eye and in her arm she held a skunk.”
Erwin, T. L. (1982). Tropical forests: their richness in Coleoptera and other arthropod species. The Coleopterists Bulletin.
Rice, M.E. (2015) Terry L. Erwin: She had a black eye and in her arm she held a skunk. ZooKeys, 500, 9-24. doi:10.3897/zookeys.500.9772
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