Tuesday 20 March 2018

Occupational Hazards: Stephen McCormack, entomologist

"Working alone in remote places is grim in bad weather"

Stephen McCormack
Stephen McCormack
Stephen McCormack

Tanya Sweeney

Becoming an entomologist just happened by accident. Somebody said to me when I was younger, 'do what interests you', so I did and followed my nose into science, biology, ecology, and eventually, entomology. I decided to make entomology my career because insects can be such a mystery; even their very identity can confound you. Because they are mostly small creatures, they are difficult to study without investing time, equipment, and sometimes, obscure literature.

In some ways, it is a bit like stamp collecting; the challenge of finding something new or discovering a new rarity. With insects, there are so many species and so few entomologists recording Irish wildlife, it gives great scope to make interesting and exciting discoveries. There are thousands of species out there in the Irish landscape; each specifically adapted or finely-tuned to exploit a particular niche or perform a particular role in the landscape. Their lives and interactions are so complex that we can only guess at the myriad of interactions taking place in an ecosystem.

Finding something really unusual happens maybe once or twice a year. Sometimes it's just blind luck that a species has been overlooked until then. Sometimes it's about knowing where to look. For instance, there's a tiny aquatic beetle by the name of Ochthebius poweri that only lives in water trickling down sea cliffs. It was unknown in Ireland until I looked for it on a cliff in Waterford and there it was. When you discover something really unusual like that, it gives you a little glow of satisfaction that most people wouldn't experience when looking at a minute beetle on a muddy cliff.

Working alone in remote places can be a bit grim in bad weather. Sinking into marshes and fens can also be a bit scary, or getting lost in reed-beds can be disconcerting. But when I'm stuck inside at a microscope or computer screen, I always want to be outside so I won't complain. I don't really like hot weather anyway so Ireland is perfect.

I used to travel a lot around Ireland and that's one thing I really like about doing what I do. Be it in the mountains or Midlands, Ireland really does have wonderful scenery and a great variety of landscapes. Looking for dragonflies or aquatic insects makes you go to lakes, ponds, bogs, fens, rivers and gets you out into the quiet corners of Ireland that you'd otherwise never visit. You also discover how much rubbish is dumped in the Irish countryside.

A few years back, I set off to survey insects on mountain tops in the west of Ireland, helped by a grant from the Royal Irish Academy. I lugged collecting equipment up the highest mountains from Mayo to Donegal and discovered quite a few rarities. The most exciting was Nebria nivalis, a ground-dwelling beetle, on the top of Mweelrea in Mayo. It hasn't been seen since, but I doubt anybody has looked for it. Because of climate change it will probably go the way of the already extinct (in Ireland) Mountain Ringlet butterfly.

Learning from other entomologists is the quickest way in (to the job) and they're a friendly bunch and always willing to help. There's not a lot of work or money in the private sector and getting into academia is very competitive. Traditional entomology seems to be too low-tech and doesn't attract much funding. Most entomologists do entomology because they enjoy it as a hobby. You won't get rich, but you'll meet lots of interesting people and visit lots of nice places.

When I tell people what I do for a living, most are intrigued. They say something like: "Oh! I saw a very unusual insect the other day, it was black, about an inch long, and had wings and legs. Do you know what it could be?" Well, that could be any one of about 1,000 species!

Stephen has co-authored a book with Eugenie Regan, entitled 'Insects of Ireland'; see collinspress.ie

Irish Independent

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