May 29, 2013

Oriental wonders

A month ago I was visiting Kees Achterberg in Leiden, The Netherlands. I spent there two weeks learning from him and his extraordinary collection of braconid wasps, part of the great museum and institution that is Naturalis Biodiversity Center.

There are many stories I could tell about Kees. He is not only a famous scientist, but also a very kind human being -a person anyone would enjoy to have as company. My visit happened one month before his retirement, after 37 years of work. And his office was a bit... eclectic. But, in spite of the thousand things he had to finish and deal with, Kees was a great host, finding time to answer my countless questions and make me feel welcome at all times.
Kees at his office, one month before retiring...

Perhaps in the future I could write more about this visit, but for now will restrict myself to the braconid collection in Naturalis. The museum takes pride on its large holdings -one of the top five natural history institutions worlwide in terms of collection size. This is certainly the case for Braconidae, with many specimens being collected and/or acquired by Kees and his colleagues over the years. 

I focused on the Microgastrinae section only, but even there could only scratch the surface. After two weeks of work I was able to sort to genera and briefly organize part (some 8,000 specimens) of the collection that covers the Oriental fauna. But I could not finish, and there are several thousands of microgastrines still waiting to be sorted and integrated into the main (=identified) collection. The Microgastrinae holdings are very rich on European fauna, as one would expect. But there are representatives from all major regions of the planet. 

A composite photo of the Naturalis collection on Braconidae, including the famous quarantine area that needs to be crossed to access the collections.

Especially for the Oriental region, it was very rewarding to go through drawers and drawers of material from Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia, finding hundreds of undescribed species. Yes, I am not making up the numbers, I saw there an estimated of at least 600 new species (and that is a conservative estimate). That included what I believe are 3-4 new genera of Microgastrinae, which we expect to describe in the near future.

I had some previous exposure to the Oriental fauna of Microgastrinae, thanks to Mike Sharkey (University of Kentucky) who has kindly sent me lots of specimens from Thailand. After some preliminary study of Mike samples, I calculated that there are close to 400 species of Microgastrinae from that country alone. Now, after looking at Kees samples, I am convinced that there are at least 1,000 species of that subfamily from the southeast Asia region. And the vast majority (+95%) are undescribed... The revision of this fauna is a major (and daunting!) task, something that we will try to kick-start within the next couple of years. 

There are many challenges to address, but hopefully we will be able to mirror previous experiences on "turbotaxonomic approaches" to speed up the description of those species. Still, the amount of work ahead is overwhelming... But those Oriental wonders need to be revised and named as a first step towards its protection and recognition. Time to roll up the sleeves and work hard!

In the meantime, I returned to Ottawa, but have not had time to look at the specimens I brought from Leiden for further study. Other priorities have kept me busy -so busy that I did not have time to even write more posts in this blog. Hopefully I will find some time to do all of the above, and sooner rather than later... 

For now, and from the distance, I just wanted to join the many colleagues that came to Leiden this week to celebrate Kees career with a Symposium on Braconidae. Let's hope that there will be many more years of work and collaboration!


  1. Great post Jose, I am looking forward to visiting the museum and meet Kees in person in the near future.


  2. Thank you very much for your kind comment Miles!
    It was also nice to have you visiting us here in Ottawa -and I certainly hope you can return in the near future.
    I am still swamped with work and have not had time to go back to the blog and add more things. Hopefully soon...