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Sandy Journal

Jordan High teacher discovers new species of wasps, awarded scholarship for further study

Nov 01, 2021 03:21PM ● By Julie Slama

Jordan High School biology teacher Mark Petersen is joined by senior Annabelle Pettey looking over part of his collection. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Watch out Marvel, the Wasp Man is here.

It’s not another superhero that will don a cape, but rather a 6-foot-7-inch tall high school science teacher with a microscope, who identified three new species of wasps that measure around 3 millimeters in size. 

After years of research, Jordan High School biology teacher Mark Petersen’s recent discovery of the wasps that live in central Utah will be published in a scientific paper this spring.

“It took me about five years of reading the literature and comparing notes and looking at specimens to figure out if these really were new species that nobody had ever described before,” Petersen said.

As part of his doctorate, he sets up traps every summer to collect the insects.

“It takes hours of processing the material that was collected to see if these were in that sample. They’re tiny little things so I spend most of my time looking through the microscope,” Petersen said of his psilochlacis wasps.

Recently, the Utah Retired School Employees Association awarded Petersen a $1,250 scholarship to further his studies at Brigham Young University. It was one of eight scholarships the organization awarded elementary and secondary teachers of about 50 who applied.

Fred Ash, former Jordan High principal, presented his former student the award.

“When he was a student, he was in this group of guys who were really high achievers, a really good student with a 4.0 and he also was a really good basketball player,” Ash said, recalling that Petersen, at 6-foot-7, could dunk the ball.

While Ash didn’t know that Petersen had a fascination with insect collecting at that time, he said that his application with his work on insects “stood out” amongst the other candidates.

Petersen began collecting as an eight year old, with his mother making his first net. 

“Rather than just letting them go, I’ve built up over the years my own collection. I probably have 3,000 or 4,000” different specimens, he said.

Some specimens are stored at school while others at home. Some are housed in wooden collection boxes he has made, having learned woodworking from his father.  

While Petersen has collected on family vacations across the U.S. (and his youngest daughter has followed suit with her own collection), he also was part of a team who traveled to Costa Rica that collected specimens to add to the Monte L. Bean Life Science Museum—as well as a few that made it into his personal collection, he added.

Petersen said his current specimens are stored at BYU.

“Anybody that is interested could ask for those to be sent on loan so they can study them further,” he said, adding that he got to officially name the wasps, but he is keeping that under wraps until the publication’s release.

Petersen said that although he has searched throughout the state and nearby states, the main concentration of the wasps have been found in the Great Basin area near Yuba Reservoir.

“They’re always found in very dry desert areas, but they do somehow seem to be associated with certain habitats,” he said, typically that they’re found amongst juniper and sagebrush. “The first thing biologists want to know is what is out there, what all living things are. It’s the idea of biodiversity: How many different kinds are there, where are they? Then, the second question deals with, is there a purpose for these organisms?”

Petersen said to answer that, biologists are studying the parasitic wasps, which lay their eggs on a host, which is still being identified and then, will study the hosts and the insects’ lifecycles.

“There’re so new that we don’t yet know so we will just keep exploring,” he said.

One thing he does know is that he won’t get stung by his new favorite insect.

“You’d never get stung by them,” he said. “They’re too small and they don’t have stingers anyway.”

While taking a quick look, it initially may just look like these wasps are just tiny black bugs, but Petersen said they have identifying features such as their textured bodies with “punctures; they’re like little pits all over their bodies with little hairs sticking up out of them.”

Each of the species is slightly different from one another, identified, for example, through the pit shapes on their abdomens and shapes of their antennas. And they are black—expect for a little patch above their wings that is “kind of a bright orange and then, there’s also the very ends of their legs can either be yellow, brown or orange.”

Not only are his colleagues aware of his findings, but Petersen’s students know about his discovery and frequently ask him about the project.  

They’re knowledgeable because for the past 20 years, his wildlife biology students have created a collection for Jordan High with trays of framed insects that are identified. Each year, at least 100 new specimens are added to the school collection.

“We have a good time exploring how things are classified and how to identify them,” Petersen said. “A lot of kids just want to get the assignment done, but there are some kids that really get into it. I enjoy sharing and learning, right along with the kids. It’s the greatest thing.”