Harvard University's Caribbean Insects: Taxonomic Literature

Also visit the Farrell Lab main page for more information about biodiversity and entomology research at Harvard


Harvard in the Caribbean

Mangroves at Punta Cana,
East Dominican Republic

Darlington (above) in the field,
with his assistant (below)

W. M. Wheeler,
T. Barbour &H. B. Bigelow

Amber containing ambrosia beetles

The long history of scientific exchange between the Caribbean and the Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ) at Harvard and neighboring institutions places Harvard University in a position to foster research in this important biogeographic region. The Caribbean ranks in the top 4 of 25 biodiversity hotspots designated by Conservation International for their high proportions of endemic species. Research on Caribbean biodiversity is at an all-time high, and the projects represented in these web pages are a sample of ongoing research here at the MCZ and elsewhere. Because the Caribbean is small relative to other hotspots, a digital encyclopedia of the species found there is within reach, complete with web pages on each species containing high resolution photos, distribution maps and information on the biology and practical importance to humans.

Professor Louis Agassiz, founder and Director (1859-1872) of the MCZ, obtained some of the first Caribbean fish and insect specimens in the MCZ natural history collections through his active correspondence with the extraordinary Cuba-born Don Felipe Poey y Aloy, first professor of zoology and comparative anatomy at the Universidad de la Habana and founder of the Academy of Medicine in Havana. Agassiz himself also collected specimens in St. Thomas while a traveler on the ship Hassler, while his student, the famous entomologist Samuel H. Scudder, collected in Cuba. Many more expeditions followed on the Blake while she was under the charge of Dr. Alexander Agassiz, Director of the MCZ (1873-1910), who was accompanied by Samuel Garman, herpetologist. During this early period, C. T. Brues, G. M, Allen worked at Grenada on insects and mammals respectively, and collected an endemic Peripatus, a tropical invertebrate group that figured strongly in MCZ Director (1927-1946) Dr. Thomas Barbour’s ideas on the origins of the Caribbean island faunas. Research in the Greater Antilles was especially prolific under the watch of Dr. Barbour, who traveled frequently to Cuba, and developed the research-oriented Atkins Institution (a branch of the Arnold Arboretum) at the Soledad estates of Mr. Edwin Atkins. Barbour was often in the company of his friend, entomologist William Morton Wheeler, who described new ant species from many of the Caribbean islands. Barbour later supported the expeditions of entomologist Dr. Philip J. Darlington to Cuba (1924, 1936), Jamaica, Puerto Rico and Hispaniola (1938), expeditions that would result in the discovery of over 400 new insect species, including nearly 50 beetle species in the Carabidae, Darlington’s speciality. According to the annual report of Nathan Banks in 1938, Darlington’s Caribbean collections in that year alone resulted in some 12,000 beetles. The trips would also influence Darlington’s later writing of the now classic text, Zoogeography. Barbour’s own research on Ameiva lizard relationships in the Caribbean led to formulation of an early hypothesis of migration along former land bridges between the islands, while Darlington and ornithologist Dr. Ernst Mayr favored dispersal through other means. Other more recent MCZ Caribbean researchers include paleontologist Dr. G. G. Simpson, and herpetologist Dr. Ernest Williams. Williams described most of the anole lizards from the region.

An emphasis on Caribbean biodiversity studies in the MCZ continues to this day. Current MCZ Director Dr. James Hanken focuses his research on the development of the Puerto Rican tree frog, the coqui. Professor Brian D. Farrell and Professor E. O. Wilson pursue Caribbean insect studies in the Entomology Department. Farrell focuses on the evolution of plant-feeding beetles in the superfamilies Curculionoidea and Chrysomeloidea with their hostplants. Of particular interest is the bark beetle family Scolytidae, well known for the intricate galleries they produce in forest trees. While some bark beetles are symbiotic with pathogenic fungi that help in their attacks on plants, other bark beetles have become agriculturalists, cultivating particular strains of fungi deep inside trees for their own food. and the often pathogenic fungi they transport. Because they often attack trees with resins, bark beetles are also among he very most abundant insects represented in Dominican amber, the fossiled resin of an extinct species of tree (Hymenaea) in the bean family Fabacaeae. Professor E. O. Wilson pursues research on the ants of the West Indies, also well represented in amber. Farrell and Wilson contribute images of the type specimens of Caribbean bark beetles and ants to the Caribbean Type Initiative, an online database complementing the more comprehensive Entomology Type Database. While the MCZ-administered Ernst Mayr grants provide support for researchers from each corner of the globe to visit important collections for examination of type specimens, these databases bring the types from our collection to researchers worldwide.


Barbour, T. 1914. A contribution to the zoogeography of the West Indies, with especial reference to amphibians and reptiles. Mem. M. C. Z. 44: 209-359.

Barbour, T. 1923. The Birds of Cuba, Mem. Nuttall Ornith. Club VI, 141 pp.

Barbour T. 1916. Some remarks on Mathews "Climate and Evolution." Annals of the New York Academy of Science 27:1-15.

Darlington, P. J. 1938. The origin of the fauna of the Greater Antilles, with discussion of dispersal of animals over water and through the air. Quart. Rev. Biol. 13:274-300.

Darlington, P. J. 1957. Zoogeography: The Geographical Distribution of Animals. John Wiley and Sons, New York. 675 pp.

Farrell, B. D., A. S. Sequeira, B. O’ Meara, B. B. Normark, J. Chung and B. H. Jordal. 2001. Evolution of agriculture in beetles (Curculionidae: Scolytinae and Platypodinae). Evolution 55:2011-2027.

Liebherr, J. K. (ed). Zoogeography of Caribbean Insects. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY. 285 pp.

Mittermeier, R. A. , N. Myers, C. G. Mittermeier.1999. Hotspots, 430 pp. Conservation International, Cemex, S. A.. Mexico City.

Williams, E. E. 1969. The ecology of colonization as seem in the zzogeography of anoline lizards on small islands. Quart. Rev. Biol. 44:345-389.

Williams, E. E. 1989. Old Problems and New Opportunities in West Indian Biogeography. Pp. 1-46 in Biogeography of the West Indies (C. A. Woods, ed,)., Sandhill Crane Press, 878 pp.

Wilson, E. O. 1985a. Invasion and extinction in the West Indian ant fauna: evidence from the Dominican amber. Science 229:265-267.

Wilson, E. O. 1985b. Ants of the Dominican amber (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). 2. The first fossil army ants. Psyche 92:11-16.

Wilson, E. O. 1988. The biogeography of West Indian ants (Hymenoptera: Formicidae), Pp 214-230 in Liebherr, J. K. (ed). Zoogeography of Caribbean Insects. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY. 285 pp.

Woods, C.A. and F.E. Sergile, (eds. ). 2001. Biogeography of the West Indies: New Patterns and Perspectives. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL.

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