A year of biodiversity: Top 10 new species of 2021 from Pensoft journals, Part 1

With 2022 round the corner, we thought we’d start off the celebrations by looking back to some the most memorable discoveries of 2021. And what a year it has been! Many new species made their debuts on the pages of Pensoft journals – here’s our selection of the most exciting animals, plants and fungi that we published in 2021.

With 2022 round the corner, we thought we’d start off the celebrations by looking back to some the most memorable discoveries of 2021. And what a year it has been! Many new species made their debuts on the pages of Pensoft journals – here’s our selection of the most exciting animals, plants and fungi that we published in 2021.

10. The delicious wild oak mushroom

It’s amazing that edible species, long known to local communities, can still present a novelty for science. This was the case with Cantharellus veraecrucis, a chanterelle from – that’s right, Veracruz, Mexico.

During the rainy season, locals harvest this mushroom from tropical oak forests to sell it or enjoy it as a delicacy; this is probably why they’ve dubbed it “Oak mushroom”.

Published in: MycoKeys

9. The master of disguise

If you ever see a leaf insect, there’s a good chance you won’t notice it – these little critters are masters of camouflaging.

This picture was taken in 2014, when Jérôme Constant and Joachim Bresseel from the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences were enjoying a night walk in Vietnam’s Nui Chua National Park. It wasn’t until this year, though, that this beauty got its own scientific name: Cryptophyllium nuichuaense. Named after the park where it was found, it is one of 13 new species of leaf insects described in our journal ZooKeys this February.

This leaf insect, like many others, is endemic to Vietnam. This is why the researchers who found itcall for the creation of more protected areas in order to keep this precious biodiversity intact.

Published in: ZooKeys

8. The Neil Gaiman spider

Unlike most spiders, trapdoor spiders don’t use silk to make a web. Instead, they live in burrows lined with silk that they cover with a “trapdoor”. They are relatively widely spread, but you’d rarely encounter one out in the open, because they spend most of their lives underground.

This is probably why arachnologists and spider lovers the world over got so excited when Dr. Rebecca Godwin (Piedmont University, GA) and Dr. Jason Bond (University of California, Davis, CA) described 33 new species of trapdoor spiders from the genus Ummidia – in addition to the 27 already known.

Dr. Rebecca Godwin talks to L. Brian Patrick about her discovery of 33 new species of trapdoor spiders on his podcast New Species.

One of the 33 is Ummidia neilgaimani, named after fantasy and horror writer Neil Gaiman. A particular favorite of Dr. Godwin, Gaiman is the author of a number of books with spider-based characters. His novel American Gods features a character based on the West African spider god Anansi and a World Tree “one hour south of Blacksburg,” not far from the type locality of this species. He’s also part of the documentary Sixteen Legs, in his own words “An amazing film about Tasmanian cave spider sex.”

“I think anything we can do to increase people’s interest in the diversity around them is worthwhile and giving species names that people recognize but that still have relevant meaning is one way to do that,” says Dr. Godwin.

Published in: ZooKeys

7. The deadly Chinese-goddess snake

Bungarus suzhenae was only described as a new species this year, but its reputation preceded it – in a bad way. Researchers were already familiar with a notorious black-and-white banded krait that bit herpetologists on expeditions in Myanmar and China – in one infamous case, to death. After extensive morphological and phylogenetical analysis, the researchers were finally able to confirm it as new to science.

The story behind B. suzhenae’s name is interesting, too: it was named after a character from the traditional Chinese myth ‘Legend of White Snake’. The powerful snake goddess Bai Su Zhen is to this day regarded as a symbol of true love and good-heartedness in China. 

Snakebites from kraits – including this one – are known to have a high mortality. This is why the new knowledge on B. suzhenae and its description as a new species are essential to the research on its venom and an important step in the development of antivenom and improved snakebite treatment.

Published in: ZooKeys

6. The ephemeral fairy lanterns

Commonly known as “fairy lanterns”, plants of the genus Thismia are very rare and small in size. They are mycoheterotrophic, which means they live in close association with fungi from which they acquire most of their nutrition. They’re also very elusive, growing in dark, remote rainforests, and visible only when they emerge to flower and set seed after heavy rain.

In fact, researchers were only able to find one specimen of the new T. sitimeriamiae, which they discovered in the Terengganu State of Malaysia – the rest of the population had been destroyed by wild boars.

Just discovered, T. sitimeriamiae may already be threatened by extinction – which is why the research team that discovered it suggest that this exceptionally rare plant is classified as Critically Endangered.

Published in: PhytoKeys

Part 2 coming soon – stay tuned!

Decade-old photographs shared on social media give away a new species of pygmy grasshopper

While scrolling through iNaturalist – a social network where professional and citizen scientists share their photographs, in order to map biodiversity observations from across the globe – a group of students from Croatia discovered a couple of curious pictures, taken in 2008 in the Peruvian rainforest and posted in 2018. What they were looking at was a pygmy grasshopper sporting a unique pattern of lively colors. The motley insect was nothing they have so far encountered in the scientific literature.

While scrolling through iNaturalist – a social network where professional and citizen scientists share their photographs, in order to map biodiversity observations from across the globe – a group of students from Croatia discovered a couple of curious pictures, taken in 2008 in the Peruvian rainforest and posted in 2018. What they were looking at was a pygmy grasshopper sporting a unique pattern of lively colors. The motley insect was nothing they have so far encountered in the scientific literature.

The scientist and photographer Roberto Sindaco, Museo Civico di Storia naturale (Torino, Italy) graciously shared his camera roll with Niko Kasalo, Maks Deranja, and Karmela Adžić, graduate students under the mentorship of Josip Skejo, all currently affiliated with University of Zagreb, Faculty of Science, Croatia. Together, they published a paper describing the yet to be named insect in the open-access scientific journal Journal of Orthoptera Research.

Typically, new species are described from specimens collected from their natural habitats and then deposited in a museum to be preserved for future reference. The authors, possessing several high-quality photographs, decided to challenge the norm and name the new species based on photographs only. The paper was initially rejected, but a compromise was reached—it could be published with the species name removed.

The International Code of Zoological nomenclature is a document that contains regulations for proper scientific naming of animal species. It allows naming species from photographs, but the practice is generally looked down upon. Thus, the authors decided to use the nameless species to draw attention to this problem and bring more clarity. Names in zoology consist of two words: the genus name and the species name. As the species name was denied, the grasshopper is now mysteriously referred to as „the nameless Scaria“.

Another important message of this paper is how citizen science portals, such as iNaturalist, allow everybody interested in nature to contribute to ‘real’ scientific work by posting their findings online.

The authors believe that including laypeople in the scientific process can help bridge the communication gap between scientists and the general population, dissipating the growing suspicion towards science. The researchers urge everybody to engage with nature around them and capture its beauty with their camera lens. 

“Only by interacting with nature can we truly feel how much we might lose if we do not take care of it, and care is urgently needed,”

said the authors of the study.
Male of the nameless Scaria species
Photo by Roberto Sindaco

Original source:

Kasalo N, Deranja M, Adžić K, Sindaco R, Skejo J (2021) Discovering insect species based on photographs only: The case of a nameless species of the genus Scaria (Orthoptera: Tetrigidae). Journal of Orthoptera Research 30(2): 173-184. https://doi.org/10.3897/jor.30.65885

Digitising the Natural History Museum London’s entire collection could contribute over £2 billion to the global economy

In a world first, the Natural History Museum, London, has collaborated with economic consultants, Frontier Economics Ltd, to explore the economic and societal value of digitising natural history collections and concluded that digitisation has the potential to see a seven to tenfold return on investment. Whilst significant progress is already being made at the Museum, additional investment is needed in order to unlock the full potential of the Museum’s vast collections – more than 80 million objects. The project’s report is published in the open science scientific journal Research Ideas and Outcomes (RIO Journal).

One of the Museum’s digitisers imaging a butterfly to join the 4.93 million specimens already available online. 
© The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London

The societal benefits of digitising natural history collections extends to global advancements in food security, biodiversity conservation, medicine discovery, minerals exploration, and beyond. Brand new, rigorous economic report predicts investing in digitising natural history museum collections could also result in a tenfold return. The Natural History Museum, London, has so far made over 4.9 million digitised specimens available freely online – over 28 billion records have been downloaded over 429,000 download events over the past six years. 

Digitisation at the Natural History Museum, London 

Digitisation is the process of creating and sharing the data associated with Museum specimens. To digitise a specimen, all its related information is added to an online database. This typically includes where and when it was collected and who found it, and can include photographs, scans and other molecular data if available. Natural history collections are a unique record of biodiversity dating back hundreds of years, and geodiversity dating back millennia. Creating and sharing data this way enables science that would have otherwise been impossible, and we accelerate the rate at which important discoveries are made from our collections.  

The Natural History Museum’s collection of 80 million items is one of the largest and most historically and geographically diverse in the world. By unlocking the collection online, the Museum provides free and open access for global researchers, scientists, artists and more. Since 2015, the Museum has made 4.9 million specimens available on the Museum’s Data Portal, which have seen more than 28 billion downloads over 427,000 download events. 

This means the Museum has digitised  about 6% of its collections to date. Because digitisation is expensive, costing tens of millions of pounds, it is difficult to make a case for further investment without better understanding the value of this digitisation and its benefits. 

In 2021, the Museum decided to explore the economic impacts of collections data in more depth, and commissioned Frontier Economics to undertake modelling, resulting in this project report, now made publicly available in the open-science journal Research Ideas and Outcomes (RIO Journal), and confirming benefits in excess of £2 billion over 30 years. While the methods in this report are relevant to collections globally, this modelling focuses on benefits to the UK, and is intended to support the Museum’s own digitisation work, as well as a current scoping study funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council about the case for digitising all UK natural science collections as a research infrastructure.

Sharing data from our collections can transform scientific research and help find solutions for nature and from nature. Our digitised collections have helped establish the baseline plant biodiversity in the Amazon, find wheat crops that are more resilient to climate change and support research into potential zoonotic origins of Covid-19. The research that comes from sharing our specimens has immense potential to transform our world and help both people and the planet thrive,

says Helen Hardy, Science Digital Programme Manager at the Natural History Museum.

How digitisation impacts scientific research?

The data from museum collections accelerates scientific research, which in turn creates benefits for society and the economy across a wide range of sectors. Frontier Economics Ltd have looked at the impact of collections data in five of these sectors: biodiversity conservation, invasive species, medicines discovery, agricultural research and development and mineral exploration. 

The Natural History Museum’s collection is a real treasure trove which, if made easily accessible to scientists all over the world through digitisation, has the potential to unlock ground-breaking research in any number of areas. Predicting exactly how the data will be used in future is clearly very uncertain. We have looked at the potential value that new research could create in just five areas focussing on a relatively narrow set of outcomes. We find that the value at stake is extremely large, running into billions,”

says Dan Popov, Economist at Frontier Economics Ltd.

The new analyses attempt to estimate the economic value of these benefits using a range of approaches, with the results in broad agreement that the benefits of digitisation are at least ten times greater than the costs. This represents a compelling case for investment in museum digital infrastructure without which the many benefits will not be realised.

This new analysis shows that the data locked up in our collections has significant societal and economic value, but we need investment to help us release it,

adds Professor Ken Norris, Head of the Life Sciences Department at the Natural History Museum.

Other benefits could include improvements to the resilience of agricultural crops by better understanding their wild relatives, research into invasive species which can cause significant damage to ecosystems and crops, and improving the accuracy of mining.  

Finally, there are other impacts that such work could have on how science is conducted itself. The very act of digitising specimens means that researchers anywhere on the planet can access these collections, saving time and money that may have been spent as scientists travelled to see specific objects.

The value of research enabled by digitisation of natural history collections can be estimated by looking at specific areas where the Museum’s collections contribute towards scientific research and subsequently impact the wider economy. 
© Frontier Economics Ltd.

Original source: 

Popov D, Roychoudhury P, Hardy H, Livermore L, Norris K (2021) The Value of Digitising Natural History Collections. Research Ideas and Outcomes 7: e78844. https://doi.org/10.3897/rio.7.e78844

Standardised expert system method for Navarre grasslands classification based on diagnostic species

Guest blog post by Itziar García-Mijangos

Grasslands represent some of the largest and most diverse biomes of the world, yet they remain undervalued and under-researched. Extending in all continents except Antarctica, they host thousands of habitat specialist endemic species, support agricultural production, people’s livelihoods based on traditional and indigenous lifestyles, and several other ecosystem services such as pollination and water regulation.

Calamintho acini-Seselietum montani in Munarriz (south of Andia Range)

Palaearctic grasslands represent the richest habitats for vascular plants at small spatial scales but are seriously threatened due to land use change. European grasslands experienced two extreme ends of the land-use gradient, intensification of land use on productive lands and abandonment of marginal lands, and both resulted in the loss of grassland biodiversity. It is necessary to understand their biodiversity patterns and how they relate to land use to be able to design conservation and management actions. This understanding requires the harmonization and standardization of grassland classification that leads to a consistent syntaxonomy at the European level and can increase the usefulness of vegetation typologies for conservation and management.

We provide important insights to grasslands, with special focus on dry grasslands, from the western part of Europe (Navarre region, Spain), which constitutes a new step on the pan-European grassland classification. For this purpose, we used 958 relevés distributed across all the region and grassland types, 119 containing also information on bryophytes and lichens. The data used are available in EVA and GrassPlot databases.

The five phytosociological classes most represented in Navarre are distributed according to elevation, climate, soil and topographic variables. The class Lygeo-Stipetea develops in the most Mediterranean areas. On the other hand, the classes Nardetea and Elyno-Seslerietea develop at the highest elevations, linked to the highest annual precipitation and are distributed in the northern areas. Regarding soil, topographic and structural variables the class Nardetea presents the highest soil depth and is also the most acidophilous one. The class Elyno-Seslerietea is characterised by a higher cover of stones and rocks as well as higher soil organic matter content, and, together with Nardetea and Molinio-Arrhenatheretea, is the poorest in soil carbonate content. Conversely, Lygeo-Stipetea stands out by its high soil carbonate content and low soil organic matter. Molinio-Arrhenatheretea stands out for its high cover of the herb layer and cryptogams.

Lygeum spartum communities in Bardenas Reales

We would like to highlight that bryophytes and lichens, contrary to past assumptions, are core elements of these grasslands and particularly the Mediterranean ones of Lygeo-Stipetea, both in terms of biodiversity and of diagnostic species.

We provide, for the first time, an electronic expert system for grasslands in Navarre, based on diagnostic species of each hierarchical phytosociological level from class to association. This expert system can be implemented in the JUICE program and allows the unanimous assignment of any new relevé by means of its species composition to one of the different categories established, which is of enormous value particularly for practitioners. We provide, also for the first time, a detailed databased characterisation and comparison of the syntaxa in terms of their environmental conditions and biodiversity.

Research article:

García-Mijangos I, Berastegi A, Biurrun I, Dembicz I, Janišová M, Kuzemko A, Vynokurov D, Ambarlı D, Etayo J, Filibeck G, Jandt U, Natcheva R, Yildiz O, Dengler J (2021) Grasslands of Navarre (Spain), focusing on the FestucoBrometea: classification, hierarchical expert system and characterisation. Vegetation Classification and Survey 2: 195-231. https://doi.org/10.3897/VCS/2021/69614

Snake photo posted on Instagram leads to the discovery of a new species from the Himalayas

An image on Instagram prompted the discovery of a new species of Kukri snake from Himachal Pradesh, India. Intrigued by a post shared by a master student, the research team found and examined more specimens to discover they belonged to a yet undescribed species. Their study, published in the open-access journal Evolutionary Systematics, highlights how little we still know about the biodiversity in the Western Himalayas.

Virender Kumar Kharadwaj

Intrigued by a photo shared on Instagram, a research team from India discovered a previously unknown species of kukri snake.

Staying at home in Chamba because of the COVID-19 lockdown, Virendar K. Bhardwaj, a master student in Guru Nanak Dev University in Amritsar, started exploring his backyard, photographing everything he found there and posting the pictures online. His Instagram account started buzzing with the life of the snakes, lizards, frogs, and insects he encountered.

One of those photos – a picture of a kukri snake – popped up in the feed of Zeeshan A. Mirza (National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore) and immediately caught his attention. After a chat with Harshil Patel (Veer Narmad South Gujarat University, Surat), he decided to get in touch with Virendar and find out more about the sighting.

The snake, which Virendar encountered along a mud road on a summer evening, belongs to a group commonly known as Kukri snakes, named so because of their curved teeth that resemble the Nepali dagger “Kukri”. 

At first sight, the individual that Virendar photographed looked a lot like the Common Kukri snake (Oligodon arnensis). However, a herpetologist could spot some unique features that raised questions about its identity. 

Kukri snake

Virendar uploaded the photo on 5 June 2020, and by the end of the month, after extensively surveying the area, he found two individuals – enough to proceed with their identification. However, the COVID-19 pandemic slowed down the research work as labs and natural history museums remained closed. 

Upon the reopening of labs, the team studied the DNA of the specimens and found out they belonged to a species different from the Common Kukri snake. Then, they compared the snakes’ morphological features with data from literature and museums and used micro computed tomography scans to further investigate their morphology. In the end, the research team were able to confirm the snakes belonged to a species previously unknown to science.

The discovery was published in a research paper in the international peer-reviewed journal Evolutionary Systematics. There, the new species is described as Oligodon churahensis, its name a reference to the Churah Valley in Himachal Pradesh, where it was discovered. 

What’s even more interesting is that the exploration of your own backyard may yield still undocumented species… if one looks in their own backyard, they may end up finding a new species right there.

Zeeshan A. Mirza

“It is quite interesting to see how an image on Instagram led to the discovery of such a pretty snake that, until very recently, remained hidden to the world,” comments Zeeshan A. Mirza.

“What’s even more interesting is that the exploration of your own backyard may yield still undocumented species. Lately, people have been eager to travel to remote biodiversity hotspots to find new or rare species, but if one looks in their own backyard, they may end up finding a new species right there.”

“Compared to other biodiversity hotspots, the Western Himalayas are still poorly explored, especially in terms of herpetological diversity, but they harbor unique reptile species that we have only started to unravel in the last couple of years,” Mirza adds.

Research article:

Mirza ZA, Bhardwaj VK, Patel H (2021) A new species of snake of the genus Oligodon Boie in Fitzinger, 1826 (Reptilia, Serpentes) from the Western Himalayas. Evolutionary Systematics 5(2): 335-345. https://doi.org/10.3897/evolsyst.5.72564

A star in subtropical Japan: a new species of parasitoid wasp constructs unique cocoon masses hanging on 1-meter-long strings

A new species of parasitoid wasp that constructs remarkable star-shaped cocoon masses is reported from the biodiversity hot spot Ryukyu Islands. Japanese researchers observed how the wasps construct “stars” after making their way out of the moth larvae they inhabit during their own larval stage. In their study, published in the open-access journal Journal of Hymenoptera Research, the team discuss the ecological significance of the cocoon mass and the evolution of this peculiar structure.

A unique “star” was discovered from the Ryukyu Islands, a biodiversity hot spot in subtropical Japan: a star-shaped structure that turned out to be the cocoon mass of a new species of parasitoid wasp. Researchers Shunpei Fujie (Osaka Museum of Natural History), So Shimizu, Kaoru Maeto (Kobe University), Koichi Tone (Okinawa Municipal Museum), and Kazunori Matsuo (Kyushu University) described this parasitoid wasp as a new species in the open-access Journal of Hymenoptera Research.

The new parasitoid wasps, Meteorus stellatus. Photo by Fujie S

Parasitoid wasps parasitize a variety of organisms, mostly insects. They lay eggs in the host, a larva of hawk moth in this case, where the wasp larvae later hatch. After eating the host from the inside out, the larvae spin threads to form cocoons, in which they pupate, and from which the adult wasps eventually emerge. 

The larvae of Meteorus stellatus emerging from a host moth. Photo by Tone K

Larvae of the newly discovered parasitoid wasp form star-shaped masses of cocoons lined up in a spherical pattern, suspended by a thread that can reach up to 1 meter in length. The structure, 7 to 14 mm wide and 9 to 23 mm long, can accommodate over 100 cocoons.

The star-shaped cocoon mass and the cable of the new parasitoid wasps. Photo by Shimizu S

Despite its peculiarity, the wasp species constructing these masses had not been previously described: morphological observation and molecular analysis revealed that it was new to science. The authors aptly called it Meteorus stellatus, adding the Latin word for “starry” to its scientific name.

Thanks to the recent publication, we now have the first detailed report about the construction of such a remarkable cocoon mass in parasitoid wasps. We can also see what the process looks like, as the researchers were able to film the wasps escaping from the moth larvae and forming the star-shaped structure.

Why does M. stellatus form cocoons in such a unique structure?

The authors of the study believe this unique structure helps the wasps survive through the most critical time, i.e. the period of constructing cocoons and pupating, when they are exposed to various natural enemies and environmental stresses. The star shape most likely reduces the exposed area of individual cocoons, thus increasing their defense against hyper-parasitoids (wasps attacking cocoons of other parasitoid wasps), while the long thread that suspends the cocoon mass protects the cocoons from potential enemies like ants.

“How parasitoid wasps have evolved to form such unique masses instead of the common individual cocoons should be the next thing on our ‘to-research’ list,” say the authors.

Research article:

Fujie S, Shimizu S, Tone K, Matsuo K, Maeto K (2021) Stars in subtropical Japan: a new gregarious Meteorus species (Hymenoptera, Braconidae, Euphorinae) constructs enigmatic star-shaped pendulous communal cocoons. Journal of Hymenoptera Research 86: 19-45. https://doi.org/10.3897/jhr.86.71225

Guest blog post: Operation desert: crab and dwarf spider discovered on sand dunes in military area, Slovakia

Guest blog post by Pavol Purgat

For the first time in Slovakia, the dwarf spider Walckenaeria stylifrons and crab spider Spiracme mongolica were discovered on sand dunes in Záhorie Protected Landscape Area, on  localities that serve as a military complex, used by the native Slovak army. Moreover, the spider W. stylifrons was found in a wine-growing region near the historical town of Modra.

Scientists Pavol Purgat, Dr Peter Gajdoš, Natália Hurajtová, Institute of Landscape Ecology-Slovak Academy of Sciences, Slovakia, and Dr Katarína Krajčovičová, Dr Adrián Purkart, Ľubomír Volnár, Faculty of Natural Sciences-Comenius University in Bratislava, Slovakia have published their paper, where they introduce two new spider species for Slovakia, in the open-access journal CheckList, the journal of biodiversity data.

Dwarf spider, Walckenaeria stilifrons

European continental sand dunes, characterized by high ground temperature, high temperature fluctuations and movement of sand masses, belong to the rare, climatically extreme areas resembling deserts. In Europe, lowland sandy grassland habitats are considered to be among the most endangered and are often the subject of nature conservation.

The researchers decided to understand the spider assemblages living in such extreme habitats in Western Slovakia. During 2018–2019, the study sites were chosen and co-called pitfall traps hidden in the ground were used to collect spiders.

Among other collected species, two spiders were found for the first time in Slovakia. The dwarf spider W. stilifrons is recorded from 15 European countries and it is known from Eastern England to Eastern Germany in the north, and from the Iberian Peninsula to the Crimea and Cyprus in the south. Within Central Europe, the species has so far been known from Austria, Germany and Switzerland. The crab spider S. mongolica is known from Serbia to the European part of Russia. Its distribution in Asia extends from Central Asian part of Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan to Mongolia and China. In China it is known only from Western Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang region.

Crab spider, Spiracme mongolica

Upon the detailed examination of male copulatory organs, the researchers found out that one of the species shares characters typical for the genus Spiracme, in consideration of that a new combination Spiracme mongolica for the spider previously known as Xysticus mongolicus was suggested.

In conclusion, the authors assume that W. stilifrons can live elsewhere in Europe. The rarity of the species may be related to the occurrence of adults, especially in the winter months, as most researchers are focused only on the growing seasons. The occurrence of S. mongolica in sand dunes in Slovakia confirms this species preference for dry habitats. The new finding of S. mongolica is the most known westernmost.

Research article:
Purgat P, Gajdoš P, Purkart A, Hurajtová N, Volnár Ľ, Krajčovičová K (2021) Walckenaeria stilifrons and Spiracme mongolica (Araneae, Linyphiidae, Thomisidae), two new species to Slovakia. Check List 17 (6): 1601-1608. doi: 10.15560/17.6.1601

First moth species on Alpenrose discovered

Discovery of the first moth species to mine the leaves of the highly poisonous Alpine rose

 Rust-red alpine rose, one of the most popular alpine plants. Photo by Ingrid Huemer

An Austrian-Swiss research team was able to find a previously unknown glacial relic in the Alps, the Alpine rose leaf-miner moth. It is the first known species to have its caterpillars specializing on the rust-red alpine rose, a very poisonous, widely distributed plant that most animals, including moths and butterflies, strictly avoid. The extraordinary record was just published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Alpine Entomology.

Poisonous host plant

The rust-red alpine rose (Rhododendron ferrugineum) is among the best-known and most attractive plants due to its flowering splendor – at least for humans. It is, in fact, a highly poisonous plant, strictly avoided by grazing animals. For insects, the alpine rose is attractive at most as a nectar plant; insect larvae, on the other hand, develop on it only in exceptional cases. This also applies to Alpine butterflies and moths, which leave Alpine roses largely untouched despite their wide distribution. Therefore, the discovery of a highly specialized species in the Alps came as a complete surprise.

Chance find

Since alpine roses are unattractive to caterpillars and no insect the entire Alpine region was previously known to specialize on them, butterfly and moth experts had considered them rather uninteresting and ignored them in their research. The discovery of the alpine rose leaf-miner wasn’t the result of a targeted search: it was a pure stroke of luck.

During a cloudy spell in July this year, researchers surveying the butterflies in Ardez in the Engadine valley, Switzerland, happened to take a break exactly at an infested alpine rose bush. 

“The accidental sighting of the first caterpillar in an alpine rose leaf was an absolute adrenaline rush, it was immediately clear that this must be an extraordinary species,”

Peter Huemer, researcher and head of the natural sciences department of the Tyrolean State Museums

Peter Huemer, researcher and head of the natural sciences department of the Tyrolean State Museums, and Swiss butterfly and moth expert Jürg Schmid came back in late July and early August to look for caterpillars and pupae and find out more about this curious insect. The extended search yielded evidence of a stable population of a species that was initially a complete enigma. 

Life in the leaf

The alpine rose leaf-miner moth drills through the upper leaf skin and into the leaf interior immediately after the caterpillar hatches. The caterpillar then spends its entire life until pupation between the intact leaf skins, eating the leaf from the inside. Thanks to this behavior, the caterpillar is just as well protected from bad weather as from many predators such as birds, spiders, or some carnivore insects. The feeding trail, called a leaf mine, begins with a long corridor and ends in a large square-like mine section. The feces are deposited inside this mine. When the time comes for pupation, the caterpillar leaves the infested leaf and makes a typical web on the underside or a nearby leaf. With the help of several fine silk threads, it produces an elaborate “hammock”, in which the pupation finally takes place. In the laboratory, after about 10 days, the successful breeding to a moth succeeded, with a striking result.

Enigmatic glacial relic

Final instar larva of the alpine rose leaf-miner moth on Rhododendron ferrugineum in Ardez, Graubünden, Switzerland. Photo by Jürg Schmid

Huemer and Schmid were surprised to find out that the moths belonged to a species that was widespread in northern Europe, northern Asia and North America – the swamp porst leaf-miner butterfly Lyonetia ledi. By looking at its morphological features, such as wing color and pattern, and comparing its DNA barcodes to those of northern European specimens, they were able to confirm its identity.

Habitat of the alpine rose leaf-miner moth in Engadine/Switzerland with Rhododendron ferrugineum. Photo by Jürg Schmid

The Engadine population, however, is located more than 400 km away from the nearest other known populations, which are on the border of Austria and the Czech Republic. Furthermore, the species lives in northern Europe exclusively on swamp porst and Gagel bush – two shrubs that are typical for raised bogs and absent from the Alps. However, the researchers suggest that in earlier cold phases – some 22,000 years ago – the swamp porst and the alpine rose did share a habitat in perialpine lowland habitats north of the Alps. It is very likely that after the last cold period and the melting of the glaciers, some populations of the species shifted their host preference from the swamp porst to the alpine rose. The separation of the distribution areas of the two plants caused by subsequent warm phases inevitably led to the separation of the moth populations. 

Extinction risk

The Alpine Rose Leaf-miner Moth is so far only known from the Lower Engadine. It lives in a steep, north-exposed, spruce-larch-pine forest at about 1,800 m above sea level. The high snow coverage in winter and the largely shady conditions in summer mean that alpine roses don’t get to bloom there. The scientists suspect that the moth species can still be discovered in places with similar conditions in the northern Alps, such as in neighboring Tyrol and Vorarlberg. Since the moth is likely nocturnal and flies late in the year, probably hibernating in the adult stage, the search for the caterpillars and pupae is more promising. However, the special microclimate of the Swiss location does not suggest that this species, which has so far been overlooked despite 250 years of research, is widespread. On the contrary, there are legitimate concerns that it could be one of the first victims of climate change.

Research article:

Huemer P, Schmid J (2021) Relict populations of Lyonetia ledi Wocke, 1859 (Lepidoptera, Lyonetiidae) from the Alps indicate postglacial host-plant shift to the famous Alpenrose (Rhododendron ferrugineum L.). Alpine Entomology 5: 101-106. https://doi.org/10.3897/alpento.5.76930

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

NeoBiota invites risk analysis studies in a new Special Issue on advancements in the screening of freshwater and terrestrial non-native species

The “Recent advancements in the risk screening of freshwater and terrestrial non-native species” Special Issue in the open-access, peer-reviewed scholarly journal NeoBiota is now open for submissions. The deadline for submission is 30 April 2022, with the issue scheduled for publication in August 2022.

The “Recent advancements in the risk screening of freshwater and terrestrial non-native species” Special Issue in the open-access, peer-reviewed scholarly journal NeoBiota is now open for submissions.

The issue is managed by the international team of guest editors of Dr Daniela Giannetto (Mugla Sitki Kocman University, Turkey), Prof. Marina Piria (University of Zagreb, Croatia), Prof. Ali Serhan Tarkan (Mugla Sitki Kocman University, Turkey) and Dr Grzegorz Zięba (University of Lodz, Poland).

Update: The deadline for submission has been extended to 30 April 2022, with the issue expected to be published in August 2022. 

The new special issue is expected to collate prominent contributors from the field of invasive ecology, thereby addressing existing gaps in the knowledge about both freshwater and terrestrial non-native species and their management.

The editors note that despite the current efforts and measures to monitor and tackle the spread of non-native species, and especially those posing imminent threat to local biodiversity and ecosystems, further expansion of such populations has increasingly been recorded in recent years. Of special concern are developing countries, where legislation for controlling non-native species is still lacking.

A major problem is that – as of today – we are still missing on risk screening studies needed to provide evidence for the invasiveness potential of many non-native species across several taxonomic groups, which would then be used to support specific conservation efforts. Unfortunately, this is particularly true for species inhabiting the world’s biodiversity hotspots, point out the editors.

Risk-based identification of non-native species is an essential process to inform policy and actions for conservation and management of biodiversity. Previously published papers on risk screening of aquatic non-native species, and especially those using the most widely-employed ‘-ISK’ decision-support toolkits, have attracted mounting interest from the wider scientific community.

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