Written by Brinna Barlow
Photo Courtesy of Andy Clark
Each Monday evening in KM20 we run an opportunist herpetofauna walk (that’s reptiles and amphibians). I thoroughly enjoy these walks as they don’t get back too late and there is always a plethora of amazing insects to see at night. I’m Brinna, the entomologist (that’s insect ecologist) for OpWall Mexico 2016.
Accepting this position found me at eleven o’clock at night, stood in the middle of a road being called over to explain a caterpillar that “has a face”. The smallest and most vulnerable animals are often the craftiest when it comes to survival. This is one reason that I adore the insects. This particular caterpillar has two staring golden eyes, complete with black liner and pupils, painted on to its shoulders. As well as a pink “tongue” over its true, compound eyes. When threatened this larvae will hang from branches using its powerful hind parts and tuck its head down to give it the appearance of a ferocious snake. I picked the animal up, holding it on an instant ice tea packet I happened to have in my pocket and explained all this to the gathered crowd. This included one of the teachers who first introduced me to an Operation Wallacea field season in 2010. It was only when I looked at him that I realised how surreal the situation was.
It was 2008 when we were given the introductory talk about OpWall by the head of our biology department; a strong and passionate woman who was powerfully keen for us to experience field work out on the plains of South Africa. For the next two years I saved up all the money I earned washing dishes. I bag-packed, organised raffles and wrote to grant-giving organisations. In August 2010 we shipped out. It was soon after AS exams. I was gearing up to explore university options and becoming more and more certain of my decision to take my love of biology on to higher education. While I was in South Africa I met a phenomenal woman called Elma. She had us catch beetles for her to pin. My first experience of entomology.
In university, spurred on by my tutor -an entomology professor- I took every ento module available and geared my work in other modules towards insects wherever possible. My final year dissertation was titled “A Comparative Review of the Evolution of Eusociality in Hymenoptera and Isoptera”. While my classmates waited their turn to walk up on stage and collect their degree, mine arrived in the post. I was thousands of miles away deep in cloud forest sorting out the contents of some funnel traps in a game we called “Bug or Bark?” I was volunteering as a Research Assistant with OpWall Honduras 2014. Unbeknownst to me this was the year that my secondary school was also with OpWall in Honduras. Their third expedition with the company.
Now, two years on we’ve ended up together again through no fault of our own. It’s odd how things come full circle. Perhaps the end of this circle is the start of a new one for some of the students who were out on that road with me, late at night, looking at a caterpillar that has a face.