Terry Lee Erwin (December 1st, 1940 – May 11th, 2020)

By Beulah Garner

Terry Erwin making sure the trees are working

The life work of Terry Erwin will not have escaped the notice of any modern taxonomist, systematist, biologist and those studying all other disciplines in between. His immediately infamous 1982 paper, Tropical Forests: Their Richness in Coleoptera and Other Arthropod Species, by his own admission, a back of an envelope calculation, claiming there are as many as 30 million insect species on the planet,  has been cited more than 1,300 times; in fact his work has accumulated 16,960 citations in total. He was not only incredibly influential in biodiversity science, he also published extensively on beetle systematics, describing four tribes, 22 genera, and 439 species of Carabidae. His enduring contribution to taxonomic publication is in the inception of the peer-reviewed, open-access journal Zookeys, where he continued to hold the position of editor-in-chief until his death.

Terry often talked of academic succession. He understood clearly the academic generosity of imparting knowledge to the next generation of systematists. This was not only the right thing to do, but also necessary for the continuance of the discipline of taxonomy to which he devoted his life. This generosity reached countless students over the years, particularly from Latin America. He was an able and creative academic supervisor and mentor; as well as quietly providing financial support to his students who could not otherwise afford to attend international entomological meetings. His legacy is in the teaching.

His was an incredible pedigree, a link to the taxonomic greats of the past. His Masters thesis was under the tutelage of Coleopterist J. Gordon Edwards at San Jose State University. He then went on to a PhD on the taxonomy of the Carabid genus Brachinus at the University of Alberta , under the supervision of Carabidologist George Ball (1926-2019), his ‘academic father’. Theirs became a lifelong association.  His first post-doc was at Harvard University Museum of Comparative Zoology with Carabidologist Philip J. Darlington, Jr. He then undertook a sabbatical with the Swedish entomologist and biogeographer, Carl Lindroth (1905-1979) before settling down at the United States National Museum, Department of Entomology in 1971, his position as curator of Coleoptera and research entomologist held until this day.

He was an indefatigable field-biologist, with a deep knowledge not just of the insects of the rainforests of South and Central America but also the flora and other fauna. His almost Humboldtian approach to entomological research gave him an in-depth understanding of the relatedness of species, allowing him to make a significant contribution to taxonomy as well as other related natural sciences.  His pioneering work into the arthropods of the rainforest canopy using chemical fogging techniques changed our understanding of the biodiversity of these endangered habitats.

Terry had no plans to be quitting any time soon, his investigations into the hyper-diverse canopy dwelling genus Agra, an ongoing magnus opus. Though a great and long life, it was over too soon. There was still much work to be done. Terry, in his own words,

‘‘If you are studying biodiversity – how can you not study beetles?”

Yasuní National Park, Ecuador, 2018

The Author

Beulah Garner is Senior curator of Coleoptera at the Natural History Museum of London, Life Sciences department. Beulah is a member of council of The Systematics Association (2016-2021) and a fellow of the Royal Entomological Society.