Science Book a Day Interviews Scott Richard Shaw


Special thanks to Scott Richard Shaw for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book – Planet of the Bugs: Evolution and the Rise of Insects

Scott Richard Shaw is professor of entomology and Insect Museum curator at the University of Wyoming, Laramie. He has discovered more than one hundred and fifty insect species, including a number of parasitic wasps named after cultural icons such as David Letterman, Jimmy Fallon, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Ellen DeGeneres, and Shakira—the last of which, Aleiodes shakirae, causes its host caterpillar to contort as if belly dancing. – From University of Chicago Press

#1 – What was the impetus for Planet of the Bugs?

The ideas in Planet of the Bugs developed from topics that I’d been lecturing about in my classes, especially Insect Biology, Insect Evolution, and Cosmology of Insects. These classes had students from really broad and diverse backgrounds, which challenged me to present the topics in ways that anyone can understand. I found that everyone, regardless of their background, seemed to enjoy the history of insects. So I set out, from the start, to write the story of insect origins for the wider public.

#2 – Your book seems to cover so many different stories about bugs. How did you set about finding any sort of narrative through the book? How did you organise all this information?

The easiest way to understand insects, I think, is to consider how they evolved over hundreds of millions of years. The best way to organize the information, I thought, was to arrange the chapters by relevant geological periods, considering the events in chronological order through time.

#3 – The structural forms of insects have allowed them to adapt to the many environments on Earth. How will this help them adapt into the evolving climate of the future?

That’s a challenging question. It depends a lot on which insect species you might be considering. The ones that are highly specialized, and live in very small tropical niches, may not survive at all. As tropical habitats are being destroyed, countless small insect species are likely going extinct. On the other hand, other insects that are bigger and have better dispersal ability, and those that are generalists, feeding on many different things, may be able to disperse to higher elevations perhaps, as the climate warms. But this assumes that there are remaining natural corridors for dispersal, which is increasing not true, as humans divide up the natural world into modified places. Those that do survive will likely evolve modified feeding habits, forms, and behaviors better suited to their changing environments. Some of them have always survived and adapted in the past, whatever the challenge.

#4 – How have people responded to the book? How do people reflect on the notion of a non-human-centric view of Earth?

The response to the book has been really good. It’s been getting very positive reviews, and I’ve been receiving nice letters from readers all around the world. Recently I had a kind letter from a reader in Tasmania! I’ve been really pleased by the great response to the book, and I think that presenting the insects’ point of view is really a key the book’s success.

#5 – Are you working on any new projects/books that you can tell us about?

I’m continuing to work on my research projects, discovering and describing new insect species, especially wasps from Costa Rica and Ecuador. I just had a new grant funded, by the National Science Foundation, to study tropical insects in Brazil, so that will be the focus of my research for a few years. Meanwhile, I’m sketching out some ideas for a new book, but it is just in the earliest stages of imagination. Planet of the Bugs has only been published for a month or so, but I’m starting to get some ideas on where to go next. Hopefully my readers will make some good suggestions. There are millions of insects, and I’ve only told a few of their stories; there is no shortage of material!

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