Elizabeth McMahan '46, A.M. '48: Making a name in entomology

Writer: 
August 1, 2009

Courtesy Elizabeth McMahan

Raised on a farm not far from Winston-Salem, Elizabeth "Betty" McMahan remembers climbing a sycamore tree at age fourteen and using her Boy Scout pocket knife to carve the claim: "I shall be a great biologist."

There is every indication McMahan, now eighty-five, made good on her promise. Her career as a teacher, mentor, and entomologist is filled with remarkable moments. While conducting field work in the jungles of Costa Rica, for example, she was observing a termite mound and witnessed something no other scientist had ever reported: A bug she couldn't quite make out had camouflaged itself and traveled up the mound to an opening that termite workers were repairing. The invader bug grabbed a termite and stuck a beak inside the termite's exoskeleton, sucking the victim's innards dry.

But that wasn't the most interesting detail. Next, the invader, which McMahan later identified as an insect appropriately called an "assassin bug," returned to the mound and used the termite's corpse to "fish" for its next victim. It repeated the process thirty-one times.

McMahan ran and told the other scientists of her discovery, then demonstrated it by bringing a mound into the camp. The BBC eventually filmed the ghoulish process for its acclaimed nature television series Alien Empire.

"I found one of those bugs on almost every nest, but they are so camouflaged, you hardly see them," says McMahan. "But when I went to Panama, not a single one would do it. I found out that the bugs there were a different species, even though they looked almost identical."

McMahan's career didn't begin with entomology. As an undergraduate at Appalachian State University, she became intrigued by the field of parapsychology and transferred to Duke to work with J.B. Rhine in the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory. After earning her undergraduate and master's degrees at Duke, she returned to her childhood fascination with nature, earning a Ph.D. in entomology from the University of Hawaii.

She went on to make a name for herself in bugs—literally. McMahan's field work took her as far as India and eventually led to having a new species of assassin bug named for her (Salyavata mcmahanae), as well as a new species of beetle that she found hanging out with termites (Neophilotermes mcmahanae).

When she wasn't in the field doing research, McMahan was in the classroom—as a teaching assistant at the University of Hawaii; later, as a Peace Corps worker in Jamaica; and, finally, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she taught zoology for twenty-six years.

 

© Darren Ch’ng

Her classroom legacy stuck with her former students, who recently established an endowment in her name at North Carolina State University. The funding will enhance the university's preeminent collection of entomology books.

From her home in Chapel Hill, McMahan produces a monthly newsletter for residents and writes children's books. Raising Cane with Cammie, part of a semi-autobiographical series that describes life in rural North Carolina in the 1930s, teaches kids how sugar cane was processed on that childhood farm where she began her love of nature.

"I just can't say how happy I am with my life. Things just worked out right for me," says McMahan. "You choose an animal that will take you around the world—and termites will do it."

Larson '93 is president and CEO of Zoom Factor Inc.