Creepy Calling

  • Share
  • Read Later

On a hill high above the sea, in a cluttered room, an elderly man is hard at work, bent over a microscope. Sometimes, when his eyes tire, he paces his balcony, looking out across the water. Below him and around the headland lies the town of Merimbula, on the south coast of New South Wales, swollen with tourists. Eighty-eight-year-old Elwood Zimmerman hasn't had a holiday in 27 years. Instead he sits at his desk and, through his microscope, travels the world of weevils.

The wider world teems with weevils, from soil to sand, deserts to tropical forests, fungi to kitchen cupboards. By some estimates, Australia alone has about 10,000 species, which comprise one of the most diverse weevil populations in the world. Beetles of the Curculionidae family -known to the ancient Greeks as rhynchophora, or "beaked creatures"-weevils pollinate flowers, eat ferns and other plants, destroy crops and food, and attack weeds. Yet little is known about most of them. In his 70-year career, Zimmerman has painstakingly recorded more than 4,000 species. Since he reluctantly retired 18 years ago, the honorary associate of the British Museum and former curator of weevils at the Commonwealth Scientific and Research Organisation has worked unpaid.

Though he often sees weevils on his daily walks through the bush, Zimmerman is far more likely to find them in the mail, in the packets of specimens that regularly arrive from amateur collectors around Australia. In his home storeroom, tens of thousands of dead insects await his interrogating eye. Many have never been cataloged before. As one of only two weevil experts in Australia, Zimmerman has lost count of how many new species he has recorded. But he never tires of them. "Every time I look at something under the microscope I see something I have never seen before," he says. "My work is so interesting I can barely keep away from it."

He felt the same as a child, living in California. Armed with a stick to dislodge the insects from foliage and an umbrella to catch them, he spent all his spare time in the woods. He wrote his first scientific paper in 1931-on a weevil he named Auletes mariposae Zimmerman-and two years later, as an undergraduate entomologist at Berkeley, was chosen to join a nine-month expedition through 50 Pacific islands, many of them never before visited by an entomologist. It sealed his life's path.

Sometimes just a millimeter long-and with internal organs one-tenth that size-the "beasts," as he calls them, seem, under the microscope, as strange as creatures from a fairytale. There are horns and delicate beaks, ferocious eyes and ridged backs, austere white-on-black patterns or filigree designs in gold and cream. In Fiji, Zimmerman found weevils that camouflage themselves as raindrops, glistening on leaves. Weevils from the Philippines resemble tiny jewels, their shells glittering with green circles on a backdrop of burnished gold. "They are more wonderful and wilder than dinosaurs," he says.

Australia has its own startling menagerie. "Nowhere in the world but Australia has kangaroos," he says, "and a lot of our weevils are more peculiar than kangaroos." He arrived in 1972, invited by the csiro to compile the first monograph on Australia's weevil fauna. The project has produced five volumes of text and color plates, each about 700 pages long. The difference between species is often as minute as the length of antennae, but it can distinguish a crop-destroying weevil from a harmless one. Many weevils are useful, pollinating rare flowers or eating the aggressive water weed Salvinia.

Zimmerman plans to add another three volumes to Australian Weevils. But the paucity of information on weevils anywhere means he is overwhelmed with requests for help from overseas. The workload would be burdensome for an entomologist half his age. Zimmerman knows he may not have time to complete his opus.

With so much yet to do, he finds it hard to sleep. "Before I fold up, we need to record what Australia has," he says. He's received little financial help from the csiro, and he and his wife Hannah sold their farm to help fund publication of the first five volumes. But the curiosity that sent the young boy into the woods pushes the elderly man on. Zimmerman still remembers the weevil that he found as a teenager and later made the subject of his first paper. "It was iridescent green, and it was in the shade of a huge redwood tree," he recalls, the years drifting away. "I could take you to that tree now."