Are people swapping their cats and goldfish for praying mantises?

The first overview of the pet mantis market’s dynamics reports a lack of regulations, but also the potential of a stronger collaboration between hobbyists and scientists for biodiversity conservation.

New research sheds light on the pet insect market and its implications on biodiversity conservation

Rearing insects at home as pets may sound strange and a bit nerdy, but thousands of people all over the world have already swapped their hamsters for praying mantises or stick insects.

These insects, sold at fairs and pet markets, or collected in the wild and then reared by amateurs or professionals, are gaining increased popularity and fueling a largely unknown market. Not all of them are small, crawling monsters. Some are elegant, with flower-like coloration (the Orchid Mantis, Hymenopus coronatus), and some are funny-looking like Pokémons (e.g. the Jeweled Flower Mantis, Creobroter wahlbergii). Many can be safely manipulated and cuddled as they look at you with big, cute kitty-eyes (the Giant Shield Mantis Rhombodera basalis).

 The beautiful orchid mantis Hymenopus coronatus, one of the most priced and requested mantis species on the market. Photo by William Di Pietro

When choosing a pet insect, “customers” consider things such as shape, size, colors, and behaviors. They might also take into account how rare a certain species is, or how easy it is to look after. Looking at these preferences, Roberto Battiston of Museo di Archeologia e Scienze Naturali G. Zannato (Italy), William di Pietro of the World Biodiversity Association (Italy) and entomologist Kris Anderson (USA) published the first overview of the mantis pet market. Understanding how this market, still mostly unregulated, is changing, may be crucial to the conservation of rare species and promoting awareness of their habitat and place in the ecosystem.

A survey among almost 200 hobbyists, enthusiasts and professional sellers in the mantis community from 28 different countries showed that the targets of this market are indeed predictable. The typical mantis breeder or enthusiast, the study found, is 19 to 30 years old and buys mantises mostly out of personal curiosity or scientific interest. Willing to spend over $30 for a single individual, most people will prefer beautiful looking species over rare ones.

A cute nymph of the Jeweled Flower Mantis Creobroter wahlbergii resting on the tip of a finger. Photo by William Di Pietro

The research, published in the open-access Journal of Orthoptera Research, identified buyers as “mostly curious enthusiasts with poor knowledge of the market dynamics and the laws behind it, even if they seem to generally care about their pet.”

But the data also suggests the trade might not always be on the legal side, as “about one time out of four the lack of permits or transparency from the seller is perceived from the buyer.”

A good collaboration between science and this large community may play a crucial role in the conservation of mantises in nature, the researchers point out.

The Giant Shield Mantis Rhombodera basalis looking for a friend. Photo by William Di Pietro

Mantises and, in general, insects, are poorly known in terms of biology, distribution, and threats, with many species still unknown and waiting to be discovered. This is a big limit to their protection and conservation, since you cannot protect what you don’t know.

“Hobbyists and pet insect enthusiasts are producing and sharing a huge quantity of observations on the biology and ecology of hundreds of species, even rare or still undescribed ones, a priceless heritage for the scientific community,” the researchers conclude. 

“Strengthening the dialogue between them, promoting a white market over a black one, may be a crucial help for the conservation of these insects, fundamental parts of the biodiversity of our planet, that are replacing our traditional pets at home.”

Research article:

Battiston R, Di Pietro W, Anderson K (2022) The pet mantis market: a first overview on the praying mantis international trade (Insecta, Mantodea). Journal of Orthoptera Research 31(1): 63-68. https://doi.org/10.3897/jor.31.71458

Pakistan’s amphibians need more research efforts and better protection

In Pakistan, amphibians have long been neglected in wildlife conservation, management decisions and research agendas. To counter this, scientists have now published the first comprehensive study on all known amphibian species in the country in the open-access scholarly journal ZooKeys. The little we currently know about the occurrence of the chytrid fungus, which has already eradicated many amphibian species globally, is a grim example of how urgent it is to acquire further information.

Amphibians are bioindicators of an ecosystem’s health and may also serve as biological control of crop and forest pests. The First Herpetological Congress, organized in 1989, presented alarming findings about the decline in amphibian populations. Currently, amphibians include the highest percentage of threatened species (>40%), as well as the highest number of data deficient species (>1500 species). The little we currently know about the occurrence of the chytrid fungus, which has already eradicated many amphibian species globally, is a grim example of how urgent it is to acquire further information.

Asian Common Toad. Photo by Herpetology Lab, Arid Agriculture University Rawalpindi

Researchers just published the first comprehensive study on all known amphibian species of Pakistan in the open-access journal ZooKeys. In it, they report 21 species from the country, providing their identification key and photographic guide. However, as many of Pakistan’s potential amphibian habitats are difficult to access and study, especially the high-altitude northern and arid western mountains, it is highly likely that a lot of species are yet to be discovered.

Burrowing Frog (in amplexus). Photo by Herpetology Lab, Arid Agriculture University Rawalpindi

In particular, the authors point out that habitats facing destruction, urbanization, pollution, unsustainable utilization and other human-caused threats need to be put on high priority, so that suitable conservation strategies can be devised. This way, amphibian populations would be better controlled with less financial, administrative, and human resources.

So far, amphibians have been excluded from all current legislative and policy decisions in the country. Likewise, they are not protected under any law. Hence, the legislation pertaining to rare and endemic species needs to be updated. Schedule III, which includes protected species, provincial and federal wildlife laws, and CITES appendices are in particular need of revision.

Common Skittering Frog. Photo by Herpetology Lab, Arid Agriculture University Rawalpindi

Currently, wildlife conservation projects in Pakistan mainly focus on carnivores, ungulates and birds. Therefore, the authors of the study propose adopting an inclusive wildlife conservation approach in Pakistan. This approach would advocate the integration of poorly documented taxa, such as amphibians, in wildlife conservation and management projects. It is by highlighting the significance of their existence and the intrinsic values of all wildlife species that local ecosystems can remain healthy in the long run.

“There is also a dire need to change social attitudes towards the appreciation and significance of amphibians in our society. This could be achieved by initiating community awareness, outreach and school classrooms, and through citizen science programs,” add the researchers.

Research article:
Rais M, Ahmed W, Sajjad A, Akram A, Saeed M, Hamid HN, Abid A (2021) Amphibian fauna of Pakistan with notes on future prospects of research and conservation. ZooKeys 1062: 157-175. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.1062.66913

A new species of black endemic iguanas in Caribbeans is proposed for urgent conservation

A newly discovered endemic species of melanistic black iguana (Iguana melanoderma), discovered in Saba and Montserrat islands, the Lesser Antilles (Eastern Caribbean) appears to be threatened by unsustainable harvesting (including pet trade) and both competition and hybridization from escaped or released invasive alien iguanas from South and Central America. Scientists call for urgent conservation measures in the article, recently published in the open-access journal Zookeys.

A newly discovered endemic species of melanistic black iguana (Iguana melanoderma), discovered in Saba and Montserrat islands, the Lesser Antilles (Eastern Caribbean), appears to be threatened by unsustainable harvesting (including pet trade) and both competition and hybridization from escaped or released invasive alien iguanas from South and Central America. International research group calls for urgent conservation measures in the article, recently published in the open-access journal Zookeys.

So far, there have been three species of iguana known from The Lesser Antilles: the Lesser Antillean iguana (Iguana delicatissima), a species endemic to the northernmost islands of the Lesser Antilles; and two introduced ones: the common iguana (Iguana iguana iguana) from South America and the green iguana (Iguana rhinolopha) from Central America.

The newly described species is characterised with private microsatellite alleles, unique mitochondrial ND4 haplotypes and a distinctive black spot between the eye and the ear cavity (tympanum). Juveniles and young adults have a dorsal carpet pattern, the colouration is darkening with aging (except for the anterior part of the snout). 

A basking iguana optimizing after different trials its warming by a curved position when the sun is low on the horizon on the Windward coast of Saba.
Сredit: M. Breuil
License: CC-BY 4.0

It has already occurred before in Guadeloupe that Common Green Iguana displaced the Lesser Antilles iguanas through competition and hybridization which is on the way also in the Lesser Antilles. Potentially invasive common iguanas from the Central and South American lineages are likely to invade other islands and need to be differentiated from the endemic melanistic iguanas of the area.

The IUCN Red List lists the green iguana to be of “Least Concern”, but failed to differentiate between populations, some of which are threatened by extinction. With the new taxonomic proposal, these endemic insular populations can be considered as a conservation unit with their own assessments.

“With the increase in trade and shipping in the Caribbean region and post-hurricane restoration activities, it is very likely that there will be new opportunities for invasive iguanas to colonize new islands inhabited by endemic lineages”,

shares the lead researcher prof. Frédéric Grandjean from the University of Poitiers (France).
Iguana melanoderma sunbathing at dawn on the Windward coast of Saba.
Сredit: M. Breuil
License: CC-BY 4.0

Scientists describe the common melanistic iguanas from the islands of Saba and Montserrat as a new taxon and aim to establish its relationships with other green iguanas. That can help conservationists to accurately differentiate this endemic lineage from invasive iguanas and investigate its ecology and biology population on these two very small islands that are subject to a range of environmental disturbances including hurricanes, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

“Priority actions for the conservation of the species Iguana melanoderma are biosecurity, minimization of hunting, and habitat conservation. The maritime and airport authorities of both islands must be vigilant about the movements of iguanas, or their sub-products, in either direction, even if the animals remain within the same nation’s territory. Capacity-building and awareness-raising should strengthen the islands’ biosecurity system and could enhance pride in this flagship species”,

concludes Prof. Grandjean.

The key stakeholders in conservation efforts for the area are the Dutch Caribbean Nature Alliance (DCNA), the Saba Conservation Foundation (SCF), the Montserrat National Trust (MNT) and the UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum (UKOTCF), which, the research team hope, could take measures in order to protect the flagship insular iguana species, mainly against alien iguanas.

Geographical distribution of the three iguana groups identified by Lazell (1973) in the 1960s and new taxonomic proposition.
Credit: Breuil et al. (2020)
License: CC-BY 4.0

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Original source:

Breuil M, Schikorski D, Vuillaume B, Krauss U, Morton MN, Corry E, Bech N, Jelić M, Grandjean F (2020) Painted black: Iguana melanoderma (Reptilia, Squamata, Iguanidae) a new melanistic endemic species from Saba and Montserrat islands (Lesser Antilles). ZooKeys 926: 95-131. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.926.48679

Contact:

Frédéric Grandjean 
Email: frederic.grandjean@univ-poitiers.fr

Described 28 years post-collection, new grass species makes a strong case for conservation

Originally collected 28 years ago in Ecuador, new species Poa laegaardiana has been just described, only to find out its prospects for surviving in its type location seem bleak nowadays. The study was published in the open access journal PhytoKeys.

When roaming in the Cordillera de los Andes of Ecuador, near the village of Facundo Vela, little did Smithsonian scientist and author, Dr. Paul M. Peterson, know that a small grass specimen will not only turn out to be an intriguing new species, but will also make a big statement on the importance of conservation.

Scientific drawing showing what makes new species P. laegaardiana distinct from its congeners

Almost three decades after its original collection the new species P. laegaardiana has finally emerged from its herbarium collection, but the story took an unexpected twist.

It took the authors a single Google Earth search to find out that what used to be the natural habitat of the newly found densely tufted bunchgrass, is now occupied predominantly by small farms.

Heavy agricultural use of the terrain, poses a good possibility for P. laegaardiana to have already been extirpated from this location. With the species currently known only from this area, chances are that this newly described species, might in fact turn out to be already extinct.

“Further studies are needed to search the area and browse collections for specimens from different locations,” explains Dr. Peterson. “But, in fact, it may well be that with our study we are documenting a possible extinction of a species, happening in the space of just 30 years. The story of P. laegaardiana serves to show how human-induced habitat loss can indeed be a major threat to the survival of life on Earth.”

The new species was named after renowned Danish botanist Simon Laegaard, who has made extensive collections in South America, Greenland, Ecuador, and Bolivia (accompanied by the authors) contributing to the documentation of the flora to make informed conservation and management plans.

Google Earth image comparison between the area of collection in 2011 and today. With the area having been plowed, chances of the grass still existing there are small, however it may still be found along the margins of the fields. CREDIT Left: @2018DigitalGlobe; Right: @2018Google @2018CNES/Airbus

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Original Source:

Peterson PM, Soreng RJ (2018) Poa laegaardiana, a new species from Ecuador (Poaceae, Pooideae, Poeae, Poinae). PhytoKeys 100: 141-147. https://doi.org/10.3897/phytokeys.100.25387

Scientists dive into museum collections to reveal the invasion route of a small crustacean

Biological invasions are widely recognised as one of the most significant components of global change. Far-reaching and fast-spreading, they often have harmful effects on biodiversity.

Therefore, acquiring knowledge of potentially invasive non-native species is crucial in current research. In particular, it is important that we enhance our understanding of the impact of such invasions.

To do so, Prof Sabrina Lo Brutto and Dr Davide Iaciofano, both working at the Taxonomy Laboratory of the University of Palermo, Italy, performed research on an invasive alien crustacean (Ptilohyale littoralis) known to have colonised the Atlantic European Coast. Their findings are published in the open access journal ZooKeys.

The studied species belongs to a group of small-sized crustaceans known as amphipods. These creatures range from 1 to 340 mm in length and feed on available organic matter, such as dead animals and plants. Being widely distributed across aquatic environments, amphipods have already been proven as excellent indicators of ecosystem health.

While notable for their adaptability and ecological plasticity, which secure their abundance in various habitats, these features also make amphipods especially dangerous when it comes to playing the role of invaders.

Having analysed specimens stored at the Museum of Natural History of Verona and the Natural History Museum in Paris, the scientists concluded that the species has colonised European waters 24 years prior to the currently available records.

The problem was that, back in 1985, when the amphipod was first collected from European coasts, it was misidentified as a species new to science instead of an invader native to the North American Atlantic coast.

A closer look into misidentified specimens stored in museum collections revealed that the species has been successfully spreading along the European coastlines.

Male of the invasive amphipod species (Ptilohyale littoralis), sampled in October 2015, from Bay of Arcachon, France.

Moreover, it was predicted that the amphipod could soon reach the Mediterranean due to the high connectivity between the sea and the eastern Atlantic Ocean through the Straits of Gibraltar – a route already used by invasive marine fauna in the past.

In the event that the invader reaches the Mediterranean, it is highly likely for the crustacean to meet and compete with a closely related “sister species” endemic to the region. To make matters worse, the two amphipods are difficult to distinguish due to their appearance and behaviour both being extremely similar.

However, in their paper, the scientists have also provided additional information on how to distinguish the two amphipods – knowledge which could be essential for the management of the invader and its further spread.

The authors believe that their study demonstrates the importance of taxonomy – the study of organism classification – and the role of natural history collections and museums.

“Studying and monitoring biodiversity can acquire great importance in European aquatic ecosystems and coastal Mediterranean areas, where biodiversity is changing due to climate change and invasions of alien species,” Prof Lo Brutto says. “In this context, specific animal groups play a crucial role in detecting such changes and they, therefore, deserve more attention as fundamental tools in biodiversity monitoring.”

“Regrettably, the steadily diminishing pool of experts capable of accurately identifying species poses a serious threat in this field.”

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Original source:

Lo Brutto S, Iaciofano D (2018) A taxonomic revision helps to clarify differences between the Atlantic invasive Ptilohyale littoralis and the Mediterranean endemic Parhyale plumicornis(Crustacea: Amphipoda). ZooKeys, 754: 47-62. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.754.22884

3D avatars for three new rare ant species from Africa including the Obama ant

Three new, rare ant species recently discovered in Africa were named after important figures for the African biodiversity conservation – the former United States president Barack Obama, the Nigerian writer and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, and the world-renowned biologist Edward O. Wilson.

The scientists from the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST), who had their discovery published in the open access journal ZooKeys, used a new, revolutionary method to compile scans of the ants and create 3D avatars allowing for a unique and detailed visualisation of the insects’ insides.

https://skfb.ly/6sPvr

Curiously, the Obama ant, Zasphinctus obamai, was collected from the Kakamega Forest National Park, Kenya, located near Barack Obama’s ancestral family village. The 44th President of the United States of America is famous for his numerous initiatives towards the conservation of fragile natural habitats around the globe.

Ken Saro-Wiwa, who also has his name perpetualised in the new ant species Zasphinctus sarowiwai, was a Nigerian writer and environmental activist who, after campaigning against irresponsible oil development, was executed in 1995.

“By naming a species from threatened rainforest habitats after him, we want to acknowledge his environmental legacy and draw attention to the often-problematic conservation situation in most Afrotropical rainforests,” explain the biologists in their paper.

The third new species, Zasphinctus wilsoni, bares the name of the biologist Edward O. Wilson, whose foundation has contributed greatly to the resurrection of the Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique.

The 3D avatars were created with the help of X-ray microtomography, or micro-CT, which is a technology similar to the one used in hospitals for CT scans, but relying on much higher resolution. The three-dimensional reconstructions made it possible for the scientists to look into details as tiny as the ants’ mouthparts and even their legs and hairs. Moreover, this method does not require damaging the rare specimens.

“We saw things that nobody ever looked at,” says Dr. Hita Garcia, first author on the study and a member of the Biodiversity and Biocomplexity Unit at OIST.

While closely related ants had already been known as predators of other ant species, the scientists needed to study the data provided by the scans to confirm that the new species are top predators as well.

“Normally when you describe a new species, you don’t know much about its biology,” further explains Dr. Hita Garcia, “but with the 3D reconstructions researchers can discover details right away.”

To the biologists, these reconstructions hint at a future of virtual taxonomy with the potential to alleviate issues of time, money, and specimen damage.

Furthermore, the 3D models also allow for the data to be easily accessible from anywhere. To show this, the scientists have uploaded the reconstructions to the open access Dryad Digital Repository.

“If someone wants to see the Obama ant, they can download it, look at it, and 3D print it,” Dr. Hita Garcia points out.

“Since these ants are from very threatened habitats in Africa, we wanted to pick names that draw attention to the environment, and not just the ants,” he concludes.  “The rainforests in equatorial Africa, as well as the savannah in Mozambique, needs to be protected before the habitats and animals living within them are destroyed.”

 

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Find the original public announcement available via the OIST’s website: https://www.oist.jp/news-center/news/2017/8/29/say-hello-3d-obama-ant

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Reference:

Hita Garcia F, Fischer G, Liu C, Audisio TL, Economo EP (2017) Next-generation morphological character discovery and evaluation: an X-ray micro-CT enhanced revision of the ant genus Zasphinctus Wheeler (Hymenoptera, Formicidae, Dorylinae) in the Afrotropics. ZooKeys 693: 33-93. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.693.13012