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Researchers Jim Berrian and Eric Piehil work at the San Diego Natural History Museum to classify thousands of dead bugs. Photo: Sam Hodgson

Posted: Monday, November 23, 2009 12:00 am | Updated: 10:10 pm, Mon Dec 14, 2009.

Sunday, Nov. 22, 2009 | They’re on a mission from the Navy to search for what most people avoid vigorously: Spiders, wasps, bees. Termites, ticks, ants.

Jim Berrian and Eric Piehel, scientists from the San Diego Natural History Museum, are conducting what may be the most extensive study of spiders and insects ever done in San Diego County. And they are conducting their study on some of the last unspoiled coastal sage scrub in Southern California — 1,200 acres of Chaparral hillsides, sandstone cliffs and Torrey pine trees.

It is some of the most ecologically rich — and environmentally regulated — land in Point Loma. It also happens to be Naval Base Point Loma. The military specializes in warfare, not ecology, but it understands that we need insects to pollinate plants essential for food, oxygen and medicine. So the brass reached out to the researchers to find out which species cohabitate with the sailors and marines on the land.

The basic premise of the Navy contract is this: you need to know what you have in order to save it.

"It’s a really unique opportunity to go into almost a prehistoric time and see what life along San Diego’s coast would have been like," said Michael Wall, the museum’s curator of entomology and the chief investigator on this project. "Just about anywhere else where that habitat would have existed has turned into homes with great beach views."

More than 90 percent of Southern California’s coastal sage scrub has been paved over for subdivisions and strip malls, according to University of California, Riverside researchers who found 20 new spider species at Camp Pendleton and Miramar naval bases during similar surveys in the mid 1990s.

Insect experts say they’re sure to find species never even described by science. And chances are these rare shrublands are home to many endangered bugs.

"They’re discovering things they didn’t know were found on the coast, things they didn’t know were found in Point Loma, new discoveries for the city entirely," said Bryan Munson, Naval Base Point Loma biologist.

Among the new finds in Point Loma: dark-winged fungus gnats, gall midges and spitting spiders. No one knew the Tidarren haemorrhoidale spider, possibly named for a hemorrhoid-like bump on its rear end, was in San Diego either. This is important, Berrian said, because arthropods could be the next frontier of medicine.

"You never know when somebody will come along and say 'that darn Tidarren haemorrhoidale that has gone extinct in most other places,'" Berrian said. "We have a record of it in Point Loma. And we’ve discovered in its venom a protein that can help save human lives from heart attacks or something like that."

Researchers elsewhere are studying spider venoms as possible treatments for strokes and pain. The Brazilian wandering spider — whose bite can cause impotence — is showing promise as an antidote to erectile dysfunction, according to the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta.

Pitfalls of Pit Traps

In the spirit of pioneers, or perhaps bioneers in this case, Berrian and Piehel scramble up a shrubby slope above blue water dotted with submarines. They’re collecting the contents of 60 pit traps — low-tech bug-catching bowls filled with soap and propylene glycol. The bugs crawl in; they drown; scientists collect the dead bodies.

To listen to the entomologist and biologist at work is akin to friends bantering over their favorite soap opera or the latest Charger game. "There are so many stories and relationships," said Piehel, the evolutionary biologist on the project. "It’s mind-blowing. It’s extremely fascinating."

But scientists haven’t studied insects much for similar reasons laypeople gravitate to furrier and cuddlier mammals. "They don’t grab people in a way that pretty birds or reptiles will do," Berrian lamented.

That doesn't mean they aren't vital to our plant life and our food chain. "Every one out of three bites that you take is because an insect pollinated that plant," Piehel said. "The whole ecosystem revolves around insects and the littler things."

The numbers are convincing too. People have identified 1.5 million species, and about a million of those are insects — life forms smaller than a centimeter, Berrian said.

"It’s an insect planet," exclaimed Berrian with his silvery white beard and round spectacles. "Having three body sections and six legs with four wings, that’s what you call normal. We’re the freaks, really. Some people have a hard time with that."

With its canyons, ravines, mesas, coastal dunes and salt marches, Point Loma is a botanical wonderland for rare species like the Wandering Skipper butterfly and the Cooper’s Rein orchid — partly because of its origin as an island. The San Diego River used to flow through the Midway area before it was diverted in 1877. So some plants and animals that live on the peninsula never migrated to the mainland.

That biodiversity matters because more species create a more stable ecosystem, according to San Diego State University biology professor Marshal Hedin. He said the Point Loma survey will offer a fuller picture of arthropod diversity in the county.

"I think it’s important to have a complete inventory of life on earth just because it exists," said Hedin. "And we’re the only species that can complete that inventory."

Laboring in the Lab

For every day the scientists spend in the field, there’s another five or 10 in the lab figuring out what they’ve collected. It can take days to identify one specimen, and sometimes they have to ship mystery bugs to specialists.

It’s laborious, detailed work. "I don’t want to lose anything small," explained Piehel as he poured the contents of one pit trap into a Petri dish. "It could be something new to science."

Piehel is surrounded by thousands of glass vials not much bigger than a double-A battery and filled with species like cuckoo wasps, darkling beetles, and lacewings. They’ve gathered 25,000 specimens so far, which could take a few years to label.

Jim Berrian is puzzling over a family of flies, each less than a millimeter long. To the naked eye, it’s a brown speck; Magnified a hundred times by microscope, a pointed metallic green body with buggy orange eyeballs.

Berrian consults unwieldy-looking volumes of the Manual of Nearctic Diptera that he affectionately calls fly bibles. Bare eyes or densely haired? Narrow or pudgy body? Wings — one pair or two? Such matters are critical in the world of entomology.

"Most of us went into science because it’s about discovery," explained Berrian. "It’s not sailing ships off the deepest, darkest Africa. But it’s discovery, finding new things, something that no one has ever seen or identified before."

Not in this case: Berrian’s fly works out to be part of the Scenopinidal family, a common window fly. There are plenty of other chances though, only about 24,999 specimens to go.

Rebecca Tolin is a San Diego-based freelance writer. Please contact her directly at rebeccatolin@yahoo.com with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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