The tallest begonia species in all Asia found in Tibet, China

Chinese researchers have discovered the tallest Begonia recorded in Asia. The plant belongs to a new species aptly called Begonia giganticaulis and was described in the open-access journal PhytoKeys. In Tibet’s Mêdog county, China, the team found a Begonia so tall that they had to stand on top of their vehicle to measure it. The plant was 3.6 meters tall, with the thickest part of its ground stem close to 12 cm in diameter.

With over 2050 known species, Begonia is one of the largest plant genera. Since most begonias are small weeds, a begonia taller than a human is a very unusual sight. However, the newly discovered Begonia giganticaulis is one of the few exceptions.

In 2019, Dr. Daike Tian and his colleagues initiated a field survey on wild begonias in Tibet, China. On September 10, 2020, when Dr. Tian saw a huge begonia in full bloom during surveys in the county of Mêdog, he got instantly excited. After checking its flowers, he was confident it represented a new species.

From a small population with a few dozens of individuals, Dr. Tian collected two of the tallest ones to measure them and prepare specimens necessary for further study. One of them was 3.6 meters tall, the thickest part of its ground stem close to 12 cm in diameter. To measure it correctly, he had to ask the driver to stand on top of the vehicle. In order to carry them back to Shanghai and prepare dry specimens, Dr. Tian had to cut each plant into four sections.

A Begonia giganticaulis plant is cut up for easier transportation
A Begonia giganticaulis plant is cut up for easier transportation. Photo by Daike Tian

To date, this plant is the tallest begonia recorded in the whole of Asia.

Begonia giganticaulis, recently described as a new species in the peer-reviewed journal PhytoKeys, grows on slopes under forests along streams at elevation of 450–1400 m. It is fragmentally distributed in southern Tibet, which was one of the reasons that its conservation status was assigned to Endangered according to the IUCN Red List Categories and Criteria.

The research team pose with a specimen of Begonia giganticaulis at the first Chinese begonia show in Shanghai Chenshan Botanical Garden.
The research team pose with a specimen of Begonia giganticaulis at the first Chinese begonia show in Shanghai Chenshan Botanical Garden. Photo by Meiqin Zhu

After being dried at a herbarium and mounted on a large board, the dried specimen was measured at 3.1 m tall and 2.5 m wide. To our knowledge, this is the world’s largest specimen of a Begonia species. In October 2020, the visitors who saw it at the first Chinese begonia show in Shanghai Chenshan Botanical Garden were shocked by its huge size.

Currently, the staff of Chenshan Herbarium is applying for Guinness World Records for this specimen.

Research article:

Tian D-K, Wang W-G, Dong L-N, Xiao Y, Zheng M-M, Ge B-J (2021) A new species (Begonia giganticaulis) of Begoniaceae from southern Xizang (Tibet) of China. PhytoKeys 187: 189-205.https://doi.org/10.3897/phytokeys.187.75854

Trigonopterus corona, the new species of tiny beetle named after the coronavirus

… and 27 other new species of beetles discovered on Sulawesi Island

Many curious animals can be found on the Indonesian Island of Sulawesi – such as the deer-hog and the midget buffalo. But the island’s tropical forests hide a diversity of tiny insects that still remains largely unexplored. Museum scientists from Indonesia and Germany have just discovered 28 new species of beetles, all belonging to the weevil genus Trigonopterus.

Twenty-four newly discovered species of the genus Trigonopterus from Sulawesi. Image by Alexander Riedel

Most of the new species were collected by Raden Pramesa Narakusumo, curator of beetles at the Museum Zoologicum Bogoriense, from two localities of Central Sulawesi Province: Mt. Dako and Mt. Pompangeo. In fact, the forests on their slopes had never been searched for small weevils before.

A view from a ridge over the cloudy slopes of Mt. Pompangeo. Photo by Raden Pramesa Narakusumo

His research partner, Alexander Riedel of the Natural History Museum Karlsruhe, had been studying this genus for the past 15 years and was planning for a research trip to Papua New Guinea, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Finding himself grounded, he decided to work on the specimens from Sulawesi together with Narakusumo instead.

After diagnosing the new species, it was a challenge to find suitable names for them. One obvious choice was Trigonopterus corona, which reflects the large impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on this project. However, T. corona is by far not the first insect species with a pandemic-inspired name. In the last year, we’ve seen the species descriptions of the caddisfly Potamophylax coronavirus and the wasps Stethantyx covida and Allorhogas quarentenus.

Trigonopterus corona.
Trigonopterus ewok.

While some of the newly described species go by rather ‘standard’ names that derive from either the localities they have been collected from or their distinct characters, others were given a free pass to the Hall of Fame. Two of them were named after Indonesian movie characters (T. gundala and T. unyil), while T. ewok is another addition based on the Star Wars universe – perfectly in line with T. chewbacca, T. yoda and T.porg, all described between 2016 and 2019 by teams involving Riedel. The two-millimeter-long, rust-coloured Trigonopterus ewok was found at 1900–2000 m on Mt Pompangeo, hiding among the leaf litter in the forest.

But how come the critters have remained overlooked for so long? Almost all of these beetles measure only 2-3 millimeters, while most entomologists have a preference for the larger and strikingly looking stag beetles or jewel beetles. 

A second factor is the superficial resemblance of many species: they are most easily diagnosed by their DNA sequences. Besides the publication in the open-access journal ZooKeys, high-resolution photographs of each species were uploaded to the Species ID website, along with a short scientific description. This provides a face to the species name, an important prerequisite for future studies.

R.P. Narakusumo during fieldwork at the top of Mt. Dako. Photo by Raden Pramesa Narakusumo

This is the duo’s second published paper on Trigonopterus weevils from Sulawesi – the first one describing the whopping 103 new species from the area. Currently, the known Trigonopterus species on the island amount to 132, which is likely a mere fraction of the real diversity. The numerous mountains of Sulawesi have a distinct fauna of endemics that have evolved over the past millions of years, and these wingless, flightless weevils, highly isolated in their habitats, are a good example of this diversification. Their evolution is interwoven with the island´s geological history. Riedel wants to increase the number of sampled localities: 

“Once we have enough locality coverage and understand the weevils’ evolution, we can draw conclusions on the geological processes that formed the island of Sulawesi. This is a fascinating subject, because this island was formed by the fusion of different fragments millions of years ago.” The new species thus fill an important gap required for solving the island´s geological puzzle.

For the Indonesian side, it is equally important to obtain an inventory of species: “A large percentage of Indonesian biodiversity is yet unknown and we need names and diagnoses of species, so we can use these in further studies on conservation and bioprospecting,” says R. Pramesa Narakusumo. “Two of the newly described species came from our museum collection, and this underlines the importance of museums as a source for biological discoveries,” he added.

With many more new species of this genus to be expected, it is a lucky coincidence that the number of Star Wars characters is equally long. May the Force be with these researchers!

Research article:

Narakusumo RP, Riedel A (2021) Twenty-eight new species of Trigonopterus Fauvel (Coleoptera, Curculionidae) from Central Sulawesi. ZooKeys 1065: 29-79. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.1065.71680

The first bioluminescent click beetle known from Asia represents a new subfamily

A remarkable bioluminescent click beetle was discovered in the subtropical evergreen broadleaf forests in southwest China. Having prompted the description of a brand new subfamily, the species is the very first bioluminescent click beetle known from the continent.

A remarkable bioluminescent click beetle was discovered in the subtropical evergreen broadleaf forests in southwest China. Scientists Mr. Wen-Xuan Bi, Dr. Jin-Wu He, Dr. Xue-Yan Li, all affiliated with the Chinese Academy of Sciences (Kunming), Mr. Chang-Chin Chen of Tianjin New Wei San Industrial Company, Ltd. (Tianjing, China) and Dr. Robin Kundrata of Palacký University (Olomouc, Czech Republic) published their findings in the open-access journal ZooKeys.

Even though the family of click beetles (Elateridae) contain approximately 10,000 species worldwide, it is only about 200 species able to emit light, and they inhabit Latin America and Oceania. Interestingly, the position of the luminous organs varies amongst the different click beetle lineages. In some, they are found on the foremost of the three thoracic segments of the body (prothorax), in others – on both the prothorax and the abdomen, and in few – only on the abdomen.

Luminescent behavior of Sinopyrophorus schimmeli gen. et sp. nov.
Video by Mr Wen-Xuan Bi.

“In 2017, during an expedition to the western Yunnan in China, we discovered a dusk-active bioluminescent click beetle with a single luminous organ on the abdomen, ” recalls lead scientist Mr. Wen-Xuan Bi.

Since no bioluminescent click beetle had previously been recorded in Asia, the team conducted simultaneous morphological and molecular analyses in order to clarify the identity of the new species and figure out its relationship to other representatives of its group.

Co-author Dr. Xue-Yan Li explains:

“The morphological investigation in combination with the molecular analysis based on 16 genes showed that our taxon is not only a new species in a new genus, but that it also represents a completely new subfamily of click beetles. We chose the name Sinopyrophorus for the new genus, and the new subfamily is called Sinopyrophorinae.”

In conclusion, the discovery of the new species sheds new light on the geographic distribution and evolution of luminescent click beetles. The authors agree that as a representative of a unique lineage, which is only distantly related to the already known bioluminescent click beetles, the new insect group may serve as a new model in the research of bioluminescence within the whole order of beetles.

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Original source:

Bi W-X, He J-W, Chen C-C, Kundrata R, Li X-Y (2019) Sinopyrophorinae, a new subfamily of Elateridae (Coleoptera, Elateroidea) with the first record of a luminous click beetle in Asia and evidence for multiple origins of bioluminescence in Elateridae. ZooKeys 864: 79-97. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.864.26689

Family of scaffold web spiders increased with ~20% following discovery of 43 new species

Recent study into spider specimens collected from across China, Indonesia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam and Madagascar over the past 15 years, revealed the striking number of 43 scaffold web spiders that have stayed hidden from science until now. By describing the new species in a paper published in the open access journal ZooKeys, scientists from Sichuan University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences increase the number of a scaffold web spider family (Nesticidae), known from around the world, with about twenty percents.

The studied family of scaffold web spiders is a relatively small group of arachnids, which can be found at almost any locality, apart from Siberia, Central Asia, Northern and Southern Africa and places at high latitude. Prior to the study of Drs Yucheng Lin, Francesco Ballarin and Shuqiang Li, the species counted 245 in total, 12 of which are extinct and known from fossils only. A curious peculiarity in these spiders is their comb of serrated bristles, located on their rear legs, used to pull silk bands for their webs.

Although large-scale taxonomic surveys of scaffold web spiders have long remained scarce, recently the interest towards spider research in China and Southeast Asia has seen a significant rise. Thus, over the last 15 years, Chinese, American and European arachnologists have carried out several surveys, ending up with precious samples. As a result, Dr Yucheng Lin and his team followed with deeper morphological and molecular studies to discover remarkable diversity.

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In their work, the researchers have also established a new genus (Speleoticus) for five previously known, but misplaced species, which spend a lot of their time taking shelter in caves.

The majority of scaffold web spiders occur in temperate areas of the Holarctic realm, where the species tend to be medium-sized, long-legged, and prefer cave-like environments. The species found in the tropical and subtropical areas are, on the other hand, usually smaller, with shorter legs, and can be quite often spotted outside, where they crawl in forest litter, on grass, and under stones.

 

Original source:

Lin Y, Ballarin F, Li S (2016) A survey of the spider family Nesticidae (Arachnida, Araneae) in Asia and Madagascar, with the description of forty-three new species. ZooKeys 627: 1-168. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.627.8629

New tiny arboreal toad species from India is just small enough for its own genus

Found on a herb bush, a toad of only 24 mm average length, measured from its snout tip to its cloaca, was quick to make its discoverers consider its status as a new species. After identifying its unique morphological and skeletal characters, and conducting a molecular phylogenetic analysis, not only did Dr. Aggarwal, Centre for Cellular & Molecular Biology, Dr. Vaudevan, Wildlife Institute of India and Laboratory for Conservation of Endangered Species along with their team, introduce a new species, but also added a new genus. The new ‘Andaman bush toad’, as its proposed common name is, is described in a paper published in the open-access journal ZooKeys.

With its significantly smaller size when compared to its relatives, the new toad species seems to have had its name predetermined by nature. After naming its genus after the initiator of herpetological studies in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and the first Curator of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, Edward Blyth, the species name was derived from the local epithet ‘beryet’, referring to ‘small frog’ in Andamanese. As a result, the toad was named Blythophryne beryet.

“We believe that the Great Andamanese knew of the existence of this small arboreal anuran,” the scientists explained their choice. “We hope the nomen we coin here will also raise awareness about the dwindling, indigenous tribal populations in the Andamans, their culture and extinction of their tribal languages.”

The herein described toad species occupies mostly evergreen forests across five of the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal, India. Although highly abundant, this is probably because of its narrow range of distribution.

Being active at night, the little amphibian can be regularly seen all year round, rested on the leaf surface of herb bushes. During daytime, it tends to hide under leaf litter on the forest floor. It is also characterised by reddish brown colouration, complete with two feeble dark brown inverted ‘V’-shaped markings.

Because of its severely fragmented population, restricted to no more than 10 locations, its conservation status is regarded as ‘Endangered’ based on the IUCN. Additional threats to the so far monotypic genus and its habitat are also posed by human activity and invasive fauna.

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Original source:

Chandramouli SR, Vasudevan K, Harikrishnan S, Dutta SK, Janani SJ, Sharma R, Das I, Aggarwal RK (2016) A new genus and species of arboreal toad with phytotelmonous larvae, from the Andaman Islands, India (Lissamphibia, Anura, Bufonidae). ZooKeys 555: 57-90. doi: 10.3897/zookeys.555.6522

 

Counting stars: Illegal trade of Indian star tortoises is a far graver issue

Patterned with star-like figures on their shells, Indian star tortoises can be found in private homes across Asia, where they are commonly kept as pets. One can also see them in religious temples, praised as the living incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu. How did they get there? Suspicious of a large-scale illegal international trade of these tortoises that could in fact pose a grave threat to the survival of the Indian Star tortoise, a team of researchers, led by Dr. Neil D’Cruze from Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, University of Oxford, and World Animal Protection, London, spent 17 months investigating the case focusing on India and Thailand. They have their study published in the open-access journal Nature Conservation.

The present study established that at least 55,000 Indian star tortoise individuals are being poached over the span of a year from a single trade hub in India. Helped by a number of herpetologists and wildlife enforcement officials, the researchers have tracked signals about how sophisticated criminal gangs are exploiting “legal loopholes” and people alike, taking advantage of rural communities and urban consumers in India and other Asian countries.

“We were shocked at the sheer scale of the illegal trade in tortoises and the cruelty inflicted upon them,” comments Dr. Neil D’Cruze. “Over 15 years ago wildlife experts warned that the domestic trade in Indian star tortoises needed to be contained before it could become established as an organised international criminal operation.”

“Unfortunately, it seems that our worst nightmare has come true – sophisticated criminal gangs are exploiting both impoverished rural communities and urban consumers alike,” he also added. “Neither group is fully aware how their actions are threatening the welfare and conservation of these tortoises.”

Although deemed of “Least Concern” on the IUCN Red List when last formally assessed back in 2000, the Indian star tortoise and its increasing illegal poaching and trading can easily lead to a serious risk of the species’ extinction. Other dangers of such unregulated activities include the introduction of invasive species and diseases.

Having spent a year among a rural hunter-gatherer community, researchers established the collection of at least 55,000 juvenile wild Indian star tortoises between January and December 2014. This is already between three and six times more than the last such record dating from about ten years ago.

Collectors tend to poach juvenile tortoises, but it is not rare for them to also catch adults. Based on the individual’s age and health, the tortoises are later sold to vendors at a price of between 50 and 300 Indian Rupees (INR), or between 1 and 5 USD, per animal. “Therefore, we conservatively estimate (assuming no mortalities) that the collector engagement in this illegal operation has a collective annual value of up to 16,500,000 INR (263,000 USD) for their impoverished communities,” comment the researchers.

Consumers seek the Indian star tortoise for either exotic pets or spiritual purposes. With their star-like radiating yellow patterns splashed with black on their shells, not only is this tortoise species an attractive animal, but it was also found to be considered as a good omen among the locals in the Indian state of Gujarat. During their survey, the researchers found over a hundred hatchlings in a single urban household. However, their owner claimed that none of them was kept with commercial intent, although some of the tortoises were meant for close friends and relatives.

On the other hand, there was a case where the researchers came across a Shiva temple hosting a total of eleven Indian star tortoises. Temple representatives there confirmed that the tortoise is believed to represent an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, one of the three central gods in the religion, recognised as the preserver and protector of the universe.

In India vendors do not show the reptiles in public, but they are made available upon a special request. If paid for in advance, a vendor can also supply a larger quantity of the animals at a price ranging from 1,000 to 3,000 INR (15 to 50 USD) per animal. The researchers managed to see seven captive tortoises in private, including six juveniles and one adult, all in visibly poor health. Disturbingly, in order to reach these vendors, the collected tortoise are usually wrapped in cloths and packed into suitcases. Covered by a ‘mask’ of legal produce such as fruit and vegetables, they are transported to the ‘trade hubs’. They are also smuggled abroad to satisfy consumer demand among the growing middle classes in countries such as Thailand and China.

“Despite being protected in India since the 1970’s, legal ‘loopholes’ in other Asian countries such as Thailand and China appear to undermine India’s enforcement efforts,” explains Mr. Gajender Sharma, India’s Director at World Animal Protection, “They are smuggled out of the country in confined spaces, it’s clear there is little or no concern about the welfare of these reptiles.”

“World Animal Protection is concerned about the suffering that these tortoises endure,” he further notes. “We are dealing with an organised international criminal operation which requires an equally organised international approach to combat it.”

As a result of their study, the authors conclude that more research into both the illegal trafficking of Indian star tortoise and its effects as well as the consumer demand is urgently needed in order to assess, address and subsequently tackle the issue.

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Original source:

D’Cruze N, Singh B, Morrison T, Schmidt-Burbach J, Macdonald DW, Mookerjee A (2015) A star attraction: The illegal trade in Indian Star Tortoises. Nature Conservation 13: 1-19. doi:10.3897/natureconservation.13.5625