HARPSWELL — Hillary Morin Peterson got more than she expected out of a summer internship.
Peterson, a Brunswick native studying for a doctorate in entomology at Pennsylvania State University, discovered a new species of wasp in Harpswell oak trees as an undergraduate at the University of Maine.
Although she conducted the initial research for her honors thesis with the Maine Forest Service in the summer of 2014, Morin Peterson did not realize she had found a new insect until the fall of 2015, during her internship at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
Her discovery of the non-stinging Ormocerus dirigoius was officially announced last week. The species name is derived from Maine’s motto, “Dirigo,” which is Latin for “I direct” or “I lead.”
Peterson said her thesis was based on studying winter moths in Maine and the predatory and parasitic relationship some local wasps have with them. She said she fell in love with hymenoptera, or the order of insects wasps belong to, and she did not want to stop studying them when she graduated.
“As I went through (my samples), I started learning I had a lot of these really cool little insects that I didn’t know a lot about,” she said. “It was kind of torturing me that I had all these hymenoptera wasps.”
Coincidentally, UMaine faculty members were attending the 2015 BioBlitz at Acadia National Park that year, and the theme was hymenoptera. Peterson was able to attend, and by the end of the event she had been offered an internship with the Smithsonian to continue her research.
During her time there, Peterson was able to get a closer look at her samples. She said she and her colleagues decided to only study three of the 10 wasp species she had collected, as the preparation necessary to study the tiny wasps is more intensive than with other insects.
“With these small wasps you have to do a lot of work to process them properly before you can identify them,” she said. “Half of the internship was just going through the samples and getting them properly processed.”
During the research, Peterson said one of her colleagues, a wasp expert, pointed out that some of her samples appeared to be a new species he hadn’t seen before.
While she is excited about her discovery, Peterson said finding new species in the world of entomology is not as uncommon as in other scientific arenas. She said she hopes to have the opportunity to make another discovery one day, but ultimately wants to return to Maine, where systematic entomology jobs are harder to come by.
Peterson added that many people do not realize that the differences between species of bugs are usually more minor than with other species.
“There’s three other species of (this type of wasp) and one of the differences between this one and another one is this one has more hair on its wing,” she said. “Species differentiation is very detailed.”
She also said because insects can be so varied, there are plenty of opportunities for other people to make discoveries of their own.
“I think a good point to make out of all of this is that you don’t need to go to a tropical place to find new species,” she said. “There are a lot of discoveries to be made right under your nose.”
Hillary Morin Peterson collects insect samples in Harpswell using a lindgren funnel suspended from an oak tree. (Submitted photo)