Scientific expedition to the heart of Amsterdam

Taxon Expeditions in their more usual habitat: exploring far-away jungles; Photo@Taxon Expeditions
Edition 28 June 2019, by Nanda Jagusiak-Monteiro

This summer, a group of biodiversity enthusiasts will attempt to discover new species of wildlife right in the heart of Amsterdam. With this initiative, the first of its kind, author and urban ecologist Menno Schilthuizen (known for his 2018 book Darwin Comes to Town, which won a major literary prize in Holland) aims to show that important discoveries can be made even in your own inner city backyard.

‘Of course, we’re not talking birds or butterflies here, but more obscure creatures,’ says Schilthuizen, who is also a professor of evolutionary biology at Leiden University and researcher at Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden. ‘For example, new species of leaf-mining flies or certain types of parasitic wasps might still be hiding in plain sight, even in the heart of the Dutch capital.’ In a way, that is surprising, he says, because the Netherlands’ biodiversity is one of the best-known and best-mapped of the world. But some types of teeny-tiny insects have always been so unpopular with biologists that, even here, there is still something left to be discovered.

To prove his point, Schilthuizen is mounting a proper scientific expedition to the Vondelpark, Amsterdam’s most famous city park, from 4th to 9th August. Members of the general public (citizen scientists), including people from the park’s neighbourhood, can sign up (www.taxonexpeditions. com) to be part of the team that will do research led by international insect experts. They will employ a variety of tricks of the trade to capture the more elusive insects. For example, the team will place so-called pitfall traps: cups dug into the ground, sometimes with a piece of meat or cheese as bait, that insects fall into. Or, the tried and tested ‘malaise traps,’ named after biologist René Malaise who invented this trap while camping. The trap is shaped like a tent; insects fly into it and then try to escape by flying up, where they are trapped in a bottle of alcohol. The study will take place in a special section of the park that is normally closed to the public, and where the municipality practises ecological management. The municipal ecologists, led by Florinda Nieuwenhuis, hope that the expedition will also tell whether the ecological management system is paying off.

The group’s daily catch will then be studied in the laboratories of Amsterdam’s Free University, where a battery of topnotch microscopes and DNA-equipment will be waiting to document all the genetic and other features of the new species. And in the evening there will be lectures about the hidden biodiversity that lives all around us. The expedition is run by Taxon Expeditions, an organisation set up by Schilthuizen and fellow biologist Iva Njunjić. Normally, they take groups of citizen scientists to tropical rainforests to discover new species of wildlife. This way, they have already added 15 animal species to the world’s biodiversity catalogue, including a species of water beetle that they named after actor and conservationist Leonardo DiCaprio (and the actor reciprocated by changing his Facebook profile photo to an image of the beetle). But this is the first time they will head for the urban jungle. ‘So to us, by heading for the inner city, we’re also going out of our comfort zone,’ Njunjić admits. ‘In tropical rainforests discovering new things is pretty much guaranteed. But to pull off the same trick in Amsterdam is a whole different kettle of fish.’ Nonetheless, the organisers already have some candidate names at the ready. Should they manage to discover a new species of beetle, Schilthuizen says, he would love to name it after the fab four. ‘Surrisingly, no beetle has ever been named after The Beatles!’ Moreover, this year is the 50th anniversary of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s famous “Bed-In” in the Amsterdam Hilton Hotel.

Municipal ecologist Florinda Nieuwenhuis also has high hopes for exciting discoveries, and is coveting some potential names of her own. ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we will soon have an insect named amsterdamensis, after Amsterdam?’ she says. But, it will be up to expedition participants to agree on a name, so we might surprise you! There are still some vacant spots, so if you sign up, you might be the lucky one to make such a discovery. More information: Menno Schilthuizen: info@taxonexpeditions.com; mobile: 06-22030313 taxonexpeditions.com/programs-2-2/