Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW
Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW

Resident Charting New Course in Entomology

Most ordinary folk would find it very difficult to wrap their minds around the research work that our resident, Michael Elias, has been carrying out during his PhD in entomology.

His main area of interest may sound straightforward enough – Bugs in the Pacific Islands and Australia, but dig a little deeper and you are likely to find yourself quickly out of your depth.

For instance, he did his honours thesis on Australian “Piesmatidae” and says he is now working on “Orthotylini of the West Pacific” for his PhD.

He says his main area of interest in terms of entomology is the “Heteroptera” and recommends that non-entomologists consult Wikipedia to get an idea of what that involves.

According to that source, Heteroptera is a group of about 40,000 species of insects in the Hemiptera – an order of insects most often known as “the true bugs”, comprising around 50,000–80,000 species of cicadas, aphids, planthoppers, leafhoppers, shield bugs, and others. These true bugs range in size from 1 millimetre to around 15 centimetres, and share “a common arrangement of sucking mouthparts”.

Michael completed his undergraduate studies at UNSW completing his first degree in Science/Arts, majoring in Biology/History.

He explains what has happened since in this way: “I am a systematist, so I work on their (the Orthotylini’s) Taxonomy, phylogenetics and biogeography, mostly dealing with undescribed taxa.” (Taxa are groups of one or more populations of organisms, which a taxonomist considers as a unit, normally giving them names and ranks and defining what belongs or does not belong to each taxonomic group.)

Michael adds: “I have been known to dabble in host/parasite coevolution. A fair amount of my work is methodological. My perfect Sunday would start with… just kidding.”

Michael had just returned from an international congress of entomology in Daegu, Korea, where he presented his work on “Indo-Pacific biogeography”.

“In a nutshell,” he said, “I am recovering distribution patterns of certain taxa which are congruent with expected patterns of vicariant speciation caused by the breakup of the Gondwanan supercontinent.”

Understandably, Michael wasn’t quite sure how to put that in a layperson’s terms, but he was able to say that it would likely form a chapter of his thesis.

One thing he could share with non entomologists was the best and worst aspects of his work as an entomologist. “The best part of my work is definitely the field work,” he said. “The worst part of my work is definitely data basing.” Many researchers in other fields would know exactly what he means.