Entomologist and Curator of Coleoptera

Dr. Terry Erwin sitting at a white table with containers holding a beetle in between his hands. Shelves of books behind him.
Dr. Terry Erwin working with a collection of beetles. Image courtesy of Adrian James Testa, Smithsonian, 2009-13143

Dr. Terry Erwin was born near St. Helena, California. His father was a "tin-knocker" and race car driver in the California circuit. As a teenager, with prodding from his father, he built race cars and then became President of a hot rod club, the California Conquistadores. However, he soon decided that he would not make a career of hot-rodding and instead devoted himself to studying beetles at San Jose State College under the guidance of Dr. J. Gordon Edwards. With Gordon’s mentorship, Terry solved the taxonomy of the California bombardier beetles and went on to write a dissertation on the world fauna of bombardier beetles under Dr. George E. Ball at the University of Alberta, Canada.

Terry came to the Smithsonian's Department of Entomology in 1970. About a year later, the Chair, Dr. Hurd, read Terry’s proposal for funding to study California carabid beetles. Aware of money for work in Central America, Dr. Hurd changed the proposal to “Panama,” and sent Terry off on the next plane. In Panama, Terry began a lifetime career studying biodiversity in Neotropical forests. His publication of a small paper in 1982 on the beetle fauna in a tree species there and launched a flurry of tree canopy studies aimed at estimating the number of species on the planet. He had hypothesized in the paper that there were as many as 30,000,000 species rather than the previous estimates of 1 million. Experts reacted because it could mean that we were losing a lot more species than previously thought. Terry continues his studies of biodiversity in the western Amazon Basin, currently in Ecuador, and does taxonomic studies of Carabid beetles.