Terry Erwin, Smithsonian Institution Curator of Coleoptera, has lived more than 16 years in the Western Amazon Basin studying biodiversity of insects and their relatives in the canopy, while absorbing a wealth of knowledge about the rainforest.
He spent his youth trout fishing in the High Sierra with his maternal grandfather. Terry was born on December 1, 1940, in California’s wine country at St. Helena. His father was a “tin-knocker” and racecar driver in the California circuit and his mother a government clerk. As a teenager, with prodding from his father, he began building hot cars and was a founding member and later President of the California Conquistadores, a hot rod club in the Bay Area. He put himself through college by working the Atomic Submarines at Mare Island Naval Base where he was a helper in the “Asbestos” department. At this time, he made a decision that following in his father’s footsteps was not a good idea and became a serious student under the guidance of the Coleopterist, J. Gordon Edwards, at San Jose State College. With Gordon’s enthusiasm and guidance, Terry solved the intractable taxonomy of the North American Bombardier Beetles and went on to write his PhD dissertation on the world fauna under the mentorship of George E. Ball at the University of Alberta, Canada, finishing in 1969.
Having decided that he wanted to work under the three greatest (living) carabidologists, the first being Prof. Ball, Terry obtained postdoctoral fellowships at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard with Philip J. Darlington Jr. and at Lund University, Sweden with Carl H. Lindroth. However, a position opened at the (then) United States National Museum in the Department of Entomology upon the retirement of Oscar Cartwright. With the support of Washington Biologists Field Club (WBFC) members Paul Spangler (Coleopterist) and Karl Krombien (Chairman of Entomology), Terry was able to accept the position and within two months took a year-long sabbatical to Sweden. He returned in 1971, to take up the reins as the second Coleopterist with the Department. While in Sweden, the chairmanship of the Department changed to WBFC member Paul D. Hurd, who saw on his desk a proposal left by Terry with Dr. Krombien to obtain funding for studies of the California carabid beetles. Hurd, having learned of monies for studies in Central America, crossed out the “California” and wrote in “Panama”. To Terry’s great surprise, he arrived home from Sweden to find out he was on the next plane to the Canal Zone. That was the beginning of a lifetime career on studies of biodiversity in neotropical forests.
With the publication of a small scientific paper (1 1/2 pages) in 1982 on the beetle fauna of a Panamanian tree species, Terry created a cottage industry in canopy studies and in trying to estimate the number of species on the planet. He had hypothesized in that paper that there were perhaps were as many as 30,000,000 species rather than the number described at the time of 1 million – an order of magnitude difference. A lot of people got excited, especially those in the Conservation business because if true, we were losing a lot more species than previously thought.
Terry continues his studies of biodiversity in the western Amazon Basin, at present in Ecuador, and does taxonomic studies of Carabid beetles.