Hundred and ten years ago, The Nature-Study Review published the opinion that “To-day it is almost beyond the bounds of human possibility that a child should discover an unknown fact in the sciences”. The great Colorado naturalist Theodore Cockerell countered right away: “So far is this from being true, that in some subjects, at least, it would be quite impossible for him[/her] to avoid discovering new facts.” So it is. This simple truth has not changed since Cockerell’s times, and in entomology, dealing with the most diverse animal group in a changing world, new discoveries are unavoidable indeed. However, the number of young insect collectors has been decreasing.
Jeffrey Johns Roberts from Nathrop, Colorado, fourteen years of age, is one of them. He has been collecting insects since the age of five. He has just graduated from Chaffee Country Montessori School in Salida and by now his insect collection counts several hundred specimens. He submitted his collection as a 4-H Entomology Project, and when judged, one specimen caught the eye of Bob Hammon, Extension Entomologist of Colorado State University: Jeffrey had found the first specimen of the figeater beetle, Cotinis mutabilis, in Colorado. We soon realized that this species has been extending its range in the last decades, now being established in the Las Vegas area in Nevada and in southeastern Utah. With three new state records and the help of a few colleagues, we prepared a paper for the Western North American Naturalist which was published on 1 June: “Northern range extension of the figeater beetle, Cotinis mutabilis (Scarabaeidae, Cetoniinae) into Nevada, Utah, and Colorado”. Since Jeffrey’s find initiated the whole paper project, we included him as a co-author. He made a true discovery!
Cockerell might be right when he stated “Yet I am inclined to think that under favorable circumstances, and with suitable direction, the number of children who would and could make careful observations is greater than the number of adults.” A young person’s curiosity combined with plenty of unstructured time in nature has been and still is the recipe for making naturalists and explorers.