For the Record

Get an inside look at science as it happens in the Caribbean. This week we look at different kinds of discovery on St. Kitts and Nevis.

Almost every beetle we see tells us something new about St. Kitts and Nevis.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the scientific record. I couldn’t find an actual definition of it, but it is basically all the science that has been published. You might imagine it as a huge library of books, journals, papers and more. But as big as it is, there are countless empty shelves waiting to be filled.

There are endless opportunities for scientists to make new discoveries in the Caribbean. The Caribbean is rich in plants and animals, and has been studied less than many other places. A scientist working here can expect to find many things to add to the great library of science.

But discovery can be a tricky term. The scientific record is only a small part of all knowledge. Scientists often “discover” new species that are well known to local non-scientists. Often, discovery is just making an official record of information that was already known. This is still important, because the information is available more widely.

On St. Kitts and Nevis, our ecological survey team was tasked with making discoveries of all sorts and adding them to the record. The nature of these discoveries depended a lot on how much was already known.

For a well-known group like birds, we mostly recorded sightings of birds that were already known to live on St. Kitts and Nevis. About 200 bird species have been seen on these islands since people began keeping records. Occasionally a new one is spotted, but often these are rare visitors. But keeping records of where birds are seen is still important. It helps us know what habitats are important and how bird populations change over time.

Unlike birds, beetles on St. Kitts and Nevis have received very little attention. The two islands are probably home to over 1,000 different beetle species, but perhaps only 10% have actually been collected and recorded. Most of these beetles are species that are already known from other islands and beyond. Still, knowing the beetle diversity on each island is very valuable. Comparing islands can help us understand bigger questions, like how evolution happens.

Dr. Michael Ivie and his beetle team collected between 200,000 and 300,000 beetles on St. Kitts and Nevis during their work this year. From this treasure trove, they hope to confirm most of species expected on these islands. They will also find many species found only on St. Kitts and Nevis. Most of these species will be entirely new to science. The Caribbean beetles shelf in the great library of science may be relatively bare, but it is filling up fast!

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