Erwin, Terry L. (Deceased)
United States National Museum of Natural History
Terry was born on December 1, 1940, in California’s wine country at St. Helena. His father was a “tin-knocker” and race car driver in the California circuit and his mother a government clerk. Terry spent his youth trout fishing in the High Sierra with his maternal grandfather. As a teenager, with prodding from his father, he began building hot cars and was a founding member and later president of the California Conquistadors, a hot rod club in the Bay Area. He put himself through college by working on the Atomic Submarines at Mare Island Naval Base, where he was a helper in the “Asbestos” department. At this time, he made a decision that following in his father’s footsteps was not a good idea and became a serious student under the guidance of the coleopterist, J. Gordon Edwards, at San Jose State College. With Gordon’s enthusiasm and guidance, Terry solved the intractable taxonomy of the California bombardier beetles and went on to write his dissertation on the world fauna under the mentorship of George E. Ball at the University of Alberta, Canada, finishing in 1969. Having decided that he wanted to work under the three greatest (living) carabidologists, the first being Professor Ball, Terry obtained postdoctoral fellowships at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard with Philip J. Darlington Jr., and at Lund University, Sweden with Carl H. Lindroth. However, a position opened at the (then) United States National Museum in the Department of Entomology upon the retirement of Oscar Cartwright. With the support of Washington Biologists’ Field Club members Paul Spangler (coleopterist) and Karl Krombein (chairman of entomology), Terry was able to accept the position, and within two months took a year-long sabbatical to Sweden. He returned in 1971, to take up the reins as the junior coleopterist with the department. While in Sweden, the chairmanship of the department changed to Washington Biologists’ Field Club member Paul D. Hurd, who saw on his desk a proposal left by Terry with Dr. Krombein to obtain funding for studies of the California carabid beetles. Hurd, having learned of monies for studies in Central America, crossed out the “California” and wrote in “Panama.” To Terry’s great surprise, he arrived home from Sweden to find himself on the next plane to the Canal Zone. That was the beginning of a lifetime career on studies of biodiversity in neotropical forests. With the publication of a small paper (1½ pages) in 1982 on the beetle fauna of a Panamanian tree species, Terry created a cottage industry in canopy studies and in trying to estimate the number of species on the planet. He had hypothesized in that paper that there were perhaps as many as 30,000,000 species rather than the number described at the time of 1 million – an order of magnitude difference. A lot of people were excited, especially those in the conservation business, because if true, we were losing a lot more species that previously thought. In 1981, Terry published a natural history of the carabid beetles of Plummers Island with an analysis of the fauna over the 80 years of the Washington Biologists’ Field Club’s existence using specimens that were collected by many of the founding members, which had been stored unstudied in the Smithsonian’s collections. With the purchase of the land and the subsequent protection of its flora, the Club’s objectives resulted in a return of the sycamore dominated riparian forest and restoration of hardwood forests on the knolls, yet the carabid beetles fauna diminished from some 160 species at the turn of century to a mere 98 in the 1970s -- good intentions actually decreased the biodiversity of the heterogeneous flora resulting from small farmers in the area. Pollution from up-river factories and open sewers also impacted the shoreline. Terry was elected to the Washington Biologists’ Field Club in 1972 and has served as secretary and on the research committee. His favorite times were as assistant cook to the infamous Jack Clarke, master of the Wild Turkey hash brown potatoes. Terry died on May 11, 2020, at the age of 79.