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Bitten by science bug at a young age

07/13/2014, 12:01am EDT
By MATT MARKEY BLADE OUTDOORS EDITOR

Wauseon grad Tedrow discovers new praying mantis species

Bitten by science bug at a young age

Riley Tedrow, a Wauseon High School grad and Case Western Reserve University student, displays the bush tiger mantis, a species he discovered while doing field work in Rwanda. LAURA DEMPSEY/CLEVELAND MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY

 That soccer picture said it all. As the rest of his teammates each posed with a smile and displayed some sort of loose connection to the sport, the individual photograph of five-year-old Riley Tedrow showed him with a grasshopper in his hand.

“We tried to get him into sports, but from a very early age he was much more interested in other things,” said Dani Tedrow, Riley’s mother. “You didn’t always want weird bugs and grasshoppers in the house, but you just got used to it.”

While his soccer career is less than a distant memory, there is a new bug in the Tedrow house these days, and this is not your run-of-the-mill Fulton County hopper. It is Dystacta tigrifrutex — the bush tiger mantis — which before 2013 was not known to be part of the inventory of earth’s critters.

Tedrow, a Wauseon graduate who will be a senior this fall at Case Western Reserve University, is credited with discovering the new species while he was doing field research last summer in Rwanda, a sovereign state near the equator in east central Africa.

One night while he was using a light trap to coax insects out of the dense forest undergrowth in a mountainous national park in Rwanda, Tedrow sorted through the leaf litter on the ground and picked up an unusual male and a female praying mantis. As someone who had been pulling bugs out of the goo most of his life, Tedrow sized them up and thought he might be onto something rare.

“As soon as I picked up the female prowling through the undergrowth, I realized it was unique,” Tedrow said via an email interview from Rwanda, where he is back doing more field work. “I could not categorize it.”

Tedrow took the specimen to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s Gavin Svenson, who was leading the research effort in Rwanda.

When Svenson was unable to identify the mantis, that pretty much made the discovery unofficially official.

“I suspected [it was] a novel species,” Tedrow said.

It took a while to pin that down. After Tedrow and the rest of the team returned to the U.S. following two weeks of collecting specimens in Rwanda, it took them eight months of researching and cataloging to identify everything they had.

Since there is no governing body to confirm new discoveries, the onus is on the biologists to closely scrutinize their find, put it through a meticulous inspection, extract DNA, perform dissections, and then craft a scientific paper outlining why they are convinced this is a new species. A panel of experts then goes over the work and makes a determination to accept or deny the claim.

Meanwhile, Tedrow was more than comfortable with the assertion his mantis was an as yet undiscovered or identified species. He had looked at dozens of other specimens and reviewed hundreds of papers — and nothing matched his big bugs.

“When Dr. Svenson and I had come to the conclusion that this was a new species, the feeling was exhilaration,” Tedrow said.

The discovery became official this year, and when the news hit Wauseon that one of its own had identified a new species in Africa, at least one teacher at the high school was not completely stunned by it.

“I never expected one of my students to discover a new species,” said biology teacher Trent Thomas. “I was shocked by the fact that it happened, but knowing Riley, I was not shocked by who it was.”

Thomas had Tedrow in his honors biology class and anatomy and physiology class, and quickly identified him as a budding researcher with an insatiable interest in the field.

“He was an extremely intelligent student, and one that always asked questions that pushed the discussion forward,” Thomas said. “It was never just about getting an ‘A’ with Riley — he wanted to learn as much as he could.”

Tedrow, who had been collecting insects since he could walk and then reptiles a few years later, came to the table with a substantial volume of knowledge about the class topics.

“When we got to the section on reptiles, I just kind of let him take over,” Thomas said. “He was always interested in the life sciences, and he just knew so much more than most kids.”

Riley received a python as a Christmas gift as an eighth grader, and later he got an anaconda as a get-well present after spending three months in the hospital.

He had been working at the zoo in the summer before starting high school doing turtle tracking, but fell ill, and lost 70 pounds while battling the sickness. It was identified as Dientamoeba Fragilis — a parasite found in the gastrointestinal tract of gorillas, pigs and some humans.

After recovering, Riley went right back to what he loves.

“We kind of knew he would never give this up,” Dani Tedrow said. “From the start, this is what he was most interested in, so we just kind of took it and ran with it. We bought him every bug book you could imagine. You would always find him out in a field or the yard, with little tweezers in his hand, looking for things.”

Young Tedrow carries a double major in biology and evolutionary biology and has worked at the museum in Cleveland since his freshman year at Case, researching the taxonomy (identifying and classifying organisms) and evolution of praying mantises. The 21-year-old is currently in Rwanda, and will spend 2½ weeks next month in Vietnam, searching for more mantids.

Back in Wauseon, his mom stays in touch via the Internet, and a few days ago she received a photo of smiling Riley with a 15-foot boa constrictor wrapped around his waist, and another “selfie” of Riley with a large baboon looking over his shoulder.

Dani Tedrow is still digesting the fact that her son is perfectly comfortable off somewhere in the jungle, crawling around in the dark with lord-only-knows-what crawling around him. While she might worry about the long flights and the potentially volatile political climates in the countries where he does his field work, she is not that concerned about the critters.

“This is what he wanted to do for the rest of his life, so you have to be pleased that he’s reached his dream at an early age,” she said. “Some people tell me ‘your son put Wauseon on the map’, but I don’t look at it like that. He’s doing what he loves and, as a parent, you can’t ask for more than that.”

Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: mmarkey@theblade.com or 419-724-6068.

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