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Grant Sends Researchers On World-Wide Hunt For Wasps

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A $2.6 million grant will send researchers to the far reaches of the globe in search of wasps no bigger than a half of a grain of rice.

Norman Johnson

The National Science Foundation awarded the money to Ohio State entomologist Norman Johnson and Andrew Austin, a professor of environmental biology at the University of Adelaide, in southern Australia. The project is part of the NSF's Planetary Biodiversity Inventories program.

For the next five years, the two scientists will lead a group of international researchers from nine countries on a search for some 2,500 new species of parasitic wasps that belong to a group called Platygastroidea.

“That's just an estimate of how many we hope to find,” said Johnson, who is also director of Ohio State's insect collection. He said that roughly 4,000 species of Platygastroidea wasps are already known.

The researchers will hunt for these wasps in the Atlantic forests of Brazil, the tropical forests of southeastern Asia, the arid lands of South Africa and the Western Ghats of India. Although Platygastroidea are found on every continent except Antarctica, these areas are poorly sampled.

And while these wasps may be small, their influence is huge – the wasps make excellent biological control agents by keeping key agricultural pests under control. They also help to maintain ecological balance as they invade, or parasitize, the eggs of other insects.

“We want to fully understand the diversity of these wasps,” Johnson said. “We know that there are a lot of species, but how are they distributed? We ought to be able to find many more Platygastroidea wasps that can be used as biological controls.”

There is a sense of urgency to the Planetary Biodiversity Initiative – on its website, the NSF points out that only 5 to 15 percent of all of the life on our planet has been discovered and described, and suggests that today's scientists may be one of the last generations to have the chance to inventory much of the planet's biodiversity before it disappears.

Started in 2003, the initiative aims to catalogue as many plant, animal and insect species as possible, and along the way improve upon the historically slow methods now used to describe and catalogue new findings.

For one, Johnson and his colleagues hope to make information about the newly discovered wasps immediately available to other experts. Such a system will allow researchers from around the world to store and analyze data, images and literature and would also automatically disseminate the results to the widest range of users.


Contact: Norman Johnson, (614) 292-6595; Johnson.2@osu.edu

Written by Holly Wagner, (614) 292-8310; wagner.235@osu.edu