Third-year evolutionary biology major Riley Tedrow scooped up earthworms 2 feet long and fat as his thumb, poisonous beetles that left burning blisters and the real reason he traveled halfway ‘round the globe to Rwanda this summer: mantises—praying and the less devout.
Tedrow, 20, who grew up west of Toledo in Wauseon, Ohio, was a member of a collection team led by Gavin Svenson, the Cleveland Natural History Museum’s curator of invertebrate zoology and an adjunct biology professor at Case Western Reserve and Cleveland State University.
After 17 days in savannas and rain forests, sweeping nets over tall grasses, thick tree trunks and lush leaves, and drawing bugs out of the night with light traps (think a bug zapper without the zap), they came home with nearly 200 different mantis specimens.
For Riley, it was an adventure far beyond anything he had planned.
“As a child, I collected insects in jars and containers. Then, when it came to going to college, I thought medical school,” Tedrow said. “Now I’m back to working with bugs.”
He credits assistant biology professor Mike Benard with encouraging him to follow his passion. Tedrow developed a fascination and fondness for wildlife most people would bar the door against. His father kept snakes and lizards; Tedrow relished books and documentaries about nature and, as he grew, he kept an anaconda, a goliath bird-eating spider and a coral reef tank at their rural home.
He said his fieldwork with Svenson only reinforced his decision to change course. Svenson is leading an international effort using DNA, forms and structures to classify the order Mantodea, which includes praying mantises. There are some 2,400 of them. Tedrow joined the effort as an intern sponsored by the Kirtlandia Society, named for Jared Potter Kirtland, one of the natural history museum’s founders.
The student and teacher spent the rest of the summer sorting and identifying. They found some species in places never found before, resulting in larger range maps. The pair is now writing a research paper describing a potential new species and further investigating potential others.
The mantises they collected range from an inch to half a foot. Some blend in with flowers or tree bark or resemble blades of grass, some have horn-like projections on their heads, some look like the iconic green praying mantises and others more like cockroaches, their close relatives, Tedrow said. “They have amazing evolutionary adaptations.”
A lot of cultures revere mantises. In Rwanda, they call it the “war bug” because they are predators of other insects.
“They’re big and intimidating, with clawed forelegs,” Tedrow explained. “Some sit and wait, others pursue.”
Mantises are a six-legged version of the great white shark, eating almost anything: moths, flies, caterpillars, spiders, mice and humming birds. Some females of certain species eat their mates during or after mating, as YouTube videos will attest.
The team collected at Nyungwe, Akagera and Volcanoes national parks and spent a few days at Kitabi College of Conservation and Environmental Management. The researchers here are trying to establish a relationship with Kitabi, where Rwanda’s park rangers and guides train in conservation and science. Their goal is to raise awareness of insects so the guides will include them in their conservation plans and tours, and establish a connection to begin working cooperatively with them.
The people at the college and throughout the country were nice, easy to work with, Tedrow said.
“It was gorgeous, no matter where I was,” he said. “We saw elephants, hyenas, hippos, crocs, chimps, a leopard, warthogs, baboons, cape buffalo, giraffes—right across the road. It was like being on an African safari, but it was my job.”
After earning a bachelor’s in evolutionary biology, Tedrow plans to continue studying phylogenetics and systematics, which will provide options to work in herpetology or marine biology, two other interests.
Meantime, he’s looking for another adventure: Tedrow’s working on becoming a contestant on the reality TV show Survivor.