of work Robert Sites dreamed about as a kid. Traveling to exotic places. Leading discovery expeditions. Finding and describing some of the world's rarest creatures before they disappear.
And it's the kind of work Sites now does as a professor of entomology at MU. Over the last 14 years, Sites has led several expeditions searching for rare insects in Thailand, a country blessed with incredible biodiversity but cursed with a long history of destructive land use. Unlike the United States, where scientists long ago determined what insects live where, Thailand still offers great opportunity for discovery. Sites figures there are thousands, probably tens of thousands, of yet-to-be-described insect species living in Thailand. Many of these don't exist anywhere else in the world. They may not exist much longer in Thailand, either.
Habitat loss is so prevalent in Thailand and surrounding countries that Conservation International, a U.S.-based environmental organization, has labeled the area a "biodiversity hotspot," a phrase it uses to designate "the richest and most threatened reservoirs of plant and animal life on Earth." Only five percent of the natural habitat in the "Indo-Burma Hotspot" remains in a relatively pristine condition. The rest has been damaged or destroyed by slash-and-burn agriculture, wetland drainage, logging, dam construction and other environment-altering practices. And despite local and international conservation efforts, including the establishment of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, natural habitat continues to disappear. As a result, Sites and other scientists are racing to inventory the region's fauna and flora while oases of natural habitat still exist.
"Most people are concerned about the charismatic fauna, the birds, the mammals -- the pretty things, the big, furry things you can throw your arms around and hug," says Sites. "Well, not really, but you know what I mean. If you try to sell them on preserving the habitat for insects, that's a hard sell. But that's where most of the diversity on the planet is. Of the described species of life on the planet, more than half, 52 percent, are insects."
Sites has been fascinated with insects since he was a kid growing up in Barrington, Ill., a bucolic Chicago suburb known for its lakes, forest preserves, parks and horse farms. Spring through fall, young Sites traipsed around with a group of boys who caught butterflies with homemade nets. Sites and his best friend pursued the hobby through high school, even taking out-of-state road trips to collect new specimens.
The appeal, says Sites, who at 53 retains both his youthful looks and boyish sense of wonder, was not so much the butterflies themselves but the challenge involved in finding them. "Early on, we recognized certain species were found in certain habitats. If you wanted a Great Spangled Fritillary, you had to go to the railroad tracks by a certain set of trees. If you wanted an American Copper, you had to go out into this field near this marsh. I think that's what kept me into it because passively, you're learning a lot about ecology."