By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
Dr. Scott Solomon’s latest course for Wondrium sheds new light on insects. Why Insects Matter: Earth’s Most Essential Species shows how insects are vital to our ecology and permeate history, culture, religion, and more. His course is the result of more than 20 years of study.
Dr. Scott Solomon, the presenter for Wondrium’s new course Why Insects Matter: Earth’s Most Essential Species, is fascinated by insects. They’re all around us, and yet we still have so many questions about them, which intrigues him and informs his work in biology. In his words, “There’s so much more that we don’t know about insects; that was part of what was really fun about developing this course.”
Dr. Solomon is an Associate Teaching Professor at Rice University, where he teaches ecology, evolutionary biology, and scientific communication. He brought a lifetime of study and a passion for the insect world to his new course, which goes into incredible detail about insects as everything from pollinators to recyclers to farmers.
In an exclusive interview, Dr. Solomon—who received his Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin—discussed why the subject and the course matter so much to him.
Like a Moth to a Flame
“I grew up outdoors, like a lot of people do, and it’s true for a lot of biologists—if you ask them how they got into biology, often it starts with ‘Well, I was a kid outdoors playing in the dirt and I started noticing these things and got curious,'” Dr. Solomon said. “I knew I wanted to study evolutionary biology, so I was in a Ph.D. program for ecology, evolution, and behavior, and I needed to find out what my research topic was going to be.”
The opportunity arose to spend a summer in a two-month course in Costa Rica, where Dr. Solomon worked on many small research projects studying various ecosystems, and a lot of the ecological questions that were raised had their answers in the insect world. Ants in particular—especially leafcutter ants, who he described as “charismatic” and “impressive”—became a subject of research for him and he never turned back.
At the same time, eschewing the typical subject matter one would find in an “Introduction to Entomology” class attracted him to develop Why Insects Matter.
“Usually the way that insects are introduced to people is through a much more strictly scientific approach, a strictly taxonomic approach where we learn each of the various groups of insects, of which there are many,” Dr. Solomon said. “The focus [of this course] is ‘How do insects affect people? Why do insects matter for nature and for humans?'”
Dr. Solomon’s career has included many highlights, including one especially surprising story from his time as a graduate student in Costa Rica. He and another student were dropped off on an uninhabited island near Costa Rica to live while studying a certain species of ant rumored to live there. The boat that brought them wouldn’t return for a month.
Their first day on the island, they discovered that the species didn’t live there.
“What we think happened is that there was a labeling error,” he said. “The expedition that is responsible for spreading this rumor that this species lives on this island visited the island and mainland Central America and we think they mixed up their labels and sent them off to various experts. That mistake has been perpetuated in scientific literature ever since.”
Taking lemons and making lemonade, Dr. Solomon and his colleague spent the month performing a general survey of ant species on the island—the first in nearly a century—and while they believe that one species they sought may have gone extinct, they discovered a different, brand-new species instead.
“There are worse places in the world to be marooned, but it ended up being something where I felt like we actually did make a contribution by finding this new species and documenting its existence.”
This story and many more are included in Why Insects Matter: Earth’s Most Essential Species, now available to stream on Wondrium.