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  • Writer's pictureLuis A Mazariegos

Nov 2019 - Ichneumonidae: Uncovering 150 million years of evolution @MPNR

My fascination with insects began around the age of 5 when I used to run after butterflies in my parent’s garden. At the age of twelve, I started collecting butterflies and other insects which later turned into a full-scale lepidoptera collection that included moths. I gave up collecting around the age of twenty, when my interest in hummingbirds became a quest to photograph as many species during 30 plus years of adventures that ended when all my camera equipment was stolen. This coincided with the early years of the creation of the Mesenia-Paramillo nature reserve. I began photographing all kinds of living creatures that included frogs, lizards, snakes, butterflies, moths and other insects that called my attention.

One of the insect groups that started capturing my interest were the parasitic wasps. At the nature reserve they come in all forms, shapes and color. As I began to build my photo inventory, I wanted to identify the species I had captured on film. To my surprise, very little is known about this family of Hymenoptera known as Ichneumonidae. Ichneumonid wasps are found on all continents with the exception of Antarctica. They inhabit virtually all terrestrial habitats, wherever there are suitable invertebrate hosts. Most inject their eggs either directly into their host's body, mainly larvae and pupae of insects, or lay them on their surface. After hatching, the ichneumonid larva consumes it’s still living host.

Due to the high diversity, the existence of numerous small and hard to identify species, and the majority of species being undiscovered, it has proven difficult to resolve the phylogeny of the ichneumonids. About 25,000 species have been described worldwide, but estimates of the total number of species range from 60,000 to over 100,000 – more than any other hymenopteran family. The large number of species in Ichneumonidae may be due to the evolution of parasitoidism in Hymenoptera, which occurred approximately 247 million years ago. The family has existed since at least the Jurassic period (ca. 150 million years ago).

In modern times, human activities such as the intensification and expansion of agriculture, urbanization and industrialization have caused an increasing loss of habitat not only of large animals, but also of insects. For decades it has been known that these activities would be responsible for the loss of 30 to 50% of the biodiversity of our planet. This situation is not something that should concern only science and nature lovers since a high biological diversity is a fundamental requirement to keep our planet within the limits in which the human species can survive.

For most people insects are a nuisance and probably wish they didn’t exist. But insect decline is worrisome, considering the cascading effects that their disappearance could entail. They are the most abundant and diverse organisms on Earth, and they fulfill a series of fundamental functions for the survival of our species, such as pollination and the recycling of organic matter. If insects disappear, many species that depend on them or relate to them are also at risk of becoming extinct. The potential consequences of this disaster are so serious that the international press has called the phenomenon "insectagedón".

I invite you to enjoy the biodiversity of Ichneumonid wasps at the Mesenia-Paramillo nature reserve. We will be photographing and identifying hundreds of species in the coming years; many of them new to science. This will be no small feat and a great contribution to the knowledge of our biodiverse world. We invite you to support this project and help uncover the secret world of Ichneumonid wasps.

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