Guest blog post by John Midgley and Burgert Muller
Despite centuries of study, our knowledge of the natural world is still woefully inadequate. This is especially true for inaccessible regions, but these regions often hold interesting species of communities to study. The best studied country in the Afrotropics is South Africa, but nearby countries have received much less attention.
The Kingdom of Lesotho is nestled within the borders of South Africa and this landlocked country shares many ecological similarities with its neighbour. However, Lesotho has an average altitude that is 900 m higher, leading to differences in its fauna and flora, especially in its alpine areas, as these are much more extensive than in South Africa.
While the insects of South Africa are well studied, in particular the True flies (Diptera), Lesotho remains largely undersampled for flies, and that in combination with its unique habitat has created an opportunity to contribute to the country’s biodiversity knowledge.
With discovery on their minds, Dipterists from four institutions (KwaZulu-Natal Museum, National Museum, Albany Museum and Royal Museum for Central Africa) planned to undertake several fieldtrips to Lesotho. The aim was not to just increase the holdings of the institutions, as this would be short-sighted. Instead, the goal was to promote conservation and to improve on the current knowledge on the Diptera of Lesotho. The rest is natural history, and the special collection on the Diptera of Lesotho in African Invertebrateswas born.
Even areas that have received little attention are not complete blank slates, and a handful of expeditions to Lesotho were undertaken in the mid-20th Century, most notably by the Lund Zoological Institute, The KwaZulu-Natal Museum, The Durban Natural Science Museum and the Albany Museum, but large targeted and purposeful collections are not common. The specimens from these expeditions are housed at various international and local South African institutions, which do have some limited collections of Lesotho material.
We added three further expeditions to this, in December 2021, November 2022 and January 2023, adding over 7000 specimens to the National Museum, Bloemfontein and KwaZulu-Natal Museum collections. The details of these specimens can be found in our recently published introduction to the Special Collection along with photographs of the collection sites from our expeditions.
The latest issue published in African Invertebrates is a special one: it honours the career and achievements of South African entomologist Dr Jason G. H. Londt. In celebration of Londt’s prolific and inspiring work, the issue was published to coincide with his 80th birthday in 2023.
For more than 50 years, Londt has made a notable impact on South African and international entomology, collecting large numbers of Diptera and other insect orders. He has made outstanding contributions to the entomological research on flies, especially assassin or robber flies (Diptera, Asilidae), on hangingflies (Mecoptera, Bittacidae), and field collections of insects, primarily in South Africa.
Throughout his career, he has described more species of Afrotropical Asilidae and Bittacidae (Mecoptera) than any other author.
“Today, some 952 Asilidae species are recognised from southern Africa and thanks to Jason’s exceptional collecting efforts and detailed revisionary taxonomic publications these species can be easily identified,“ write African Invertebrates editors John Midgley and Torsten Dikow in the editorial to the Festschrift.
The Festschrift includes nine articles celebrating Dr Londt’s career by authors from three continents, covering the broad contributions that he has made to Afrotropical entomology. It also introduces five new species described in his honour, one hangingfly and four true flies.
For updates about African Invertebrates and its latest publications, follow the journal on Twitter and Facebook. You can also sign up for the journal’s newsletter from the Email alert panel accessible from the homepage.
While insect populations continue to decline, taxonomic expertise in Europe is at serious risk, confirms data obtained within the European Red List of Insect Taxonomists, a recent study commissioned by the European Union.
Expertise tends to be particularly poor in the countries with the richest biodiversity, while taxonomists are predominantly male and ageing
While insect populations continue to decline, taxonomic expertise in Europe is at serious risk, confirms data obtained within the European Red List of Insect Taxonomists, a recent study commissioned by the European Union.
Scientists who specialise in the identification and discovery of insect species – also known as insect taxonomists – are declining across Europe, highlights the newly released report by CETAF, International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and Pensoft. The authors of this report represent different perspectives within biodiversity science, including natural history and research institutions, nature conservation, academia and scientific publishing.
Despite the global significance of its taxonomic collections, Europe has been losing taxonomic expertise at such a rate that, at the moment nearly half (41.4%) of the insect orders are not covered by a sufficient number of scientists. If only EU countries are counted, the number looks only slightly more positive (34.5%). Even the four largest insect orders: beetles (Coleoptera), moths and butterflies (Lepidoptera), flies (Diptera) and wasps, bees, ants and sawflies (Hymenoptera) are only adequately ‘covered’ in a fraction of the countries.
To obtain details about the number, location and productivity of insect taxonomists, the team extracted information from thousands of peer-reviewed research articles published in the last decade, queried the most important scientific databases and reached out to over fifty natural science institutions and their networks. Furthermore, a dedicated campaign reached out to individual researchers through multiple communication channels. As a result, more than 1,500 taxonomists responded by filling in a self-declaration survey to provide information about their personal and academic profile, qualification and activities.
Then, the collected information was assessed against numerical criteria to classify the scientists into categories similar to those used by the IUCN Red List of Threatened SpeciesTM. In the European List of Insect Taxonomists, these range from Eroded Capacity (equivalent to Extinct) to Adequate Capacity (equivalent to Least Concern). The assessment was applied to the 29 insect orders (i.e. beetles, moths and butterflies etc.) to figure out which insect groups the society, conservation practitioners and decision-makers need not be concerned at this point.
On a country level, the results showed that Czechia, Germany and Russia demonstrate the most adequate coverage of insect groups. Meanwhile, Albania, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Luxembourg, Latvia, Ireland and Malta turned out to be the ones with insufficient number of taxonomists.
In most cases, the availability of experts seems to correlate to GDP, as wealthiest countries tend to invest more in their scientific institutions.
What is particularly worrying is that the lack of taxonomic expertise is more evident in the countries with the greatest species diversity. This trend may cause even more significant problems in the knowledge and conservation of these species, further aggravating the situation. Thus, the report provides further evidence about a global pattern where the countries richest in biodiversity are also the ones poorest in financial and human resources.
Other concerning trends revealed in the new report are that the community of taxonomists is also ageing and – especially in the older groups – male-dominated (82%).
“One reason to have fewer young taxonomists could be due to limited opportunities for professional training (…), and the fact that not all professional taxonomists provide it, as a significant number of taxonomists are employed by museums and their opportunities for interaction with university students is probably not optimal. Gender bias is very likely caused by multiple factors, including fewer opportunities for women to be exposed to taxonomic research and gain an interest, unequal offer of career opportunities and hiring decisions. A fair-playing field for all genders will be crucial to address these shortcomings and close the gap.”
comments Ana Casino, CETAF’s Executive Director.
The European Red List of Taxonomists concludes with practical recommendations concerning strategic, science and societal priorities, addressed to specific decision-makers.
The authors give practical examples and potential solutions in support of their call to action.
For instance, in order to develop targeted and sustainable funding mechanisms to support taxonomy, they propose the launch of regular targeted Horizon Europe calls to study important insect groups for which taxonomic capacity has been identified to be at a particularly high risk of erosion.
To address specific gaps in expertise – such as the ones reported in the publication from Romania – a country known for its rich insect diversity, yet poor in taxonomic expertise – the consortium proposes the establishment of a natural history museum or entomological research institute that is well-fitted to serve as a taxonomic facility.
Amongst the scientific recommendations, the authors propose measures to ensure better recognition of taxonomic work at a multidisciplinary level. The scientific community, including disciplines that use taxonomic research, such as molecular biology, medicine and agriculture – need to embrace universal standards and rigorous conduct for the correct citation of scientific publications by insect taxonomists.
Societal engagement is another important call. “It is pivotal to widely raise awareness of the value and impact of taxonomy and the work of taxonomists. We must motivate young generations to join the scientific community” points Prof. Lyubomir Penev, Managing Director of Pensoft.
“Understanding taxonomy is a key to understanding the extinction risk of species. If we strategically target the gaps in expert capacity that this European Red List identifies, we can better protect biodiversity and support the well-being and livelihoods of our societies. With the climate crisis at hand, there is no time left to waste,”
added David Allen from the IUCN Red List team.
“As a dedicated supporter of the IUCN Red List, I am inspired by this call to strengthen the capacity, guided by evidence and proven scientific methods. However, Europe has much more scientific capacity than most biodiversity-rich regions of the world. So, what this report particularly highlights is the need for massively increasing investment in scientific discovery, and building taxonomic expertise, around the world,”
said Jon Paul Rodríguez, Chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission.
New dynamic article collection at Biodiversity Data Journal is already accumulating the project’s findings
About 1.4 million species of animals are currently known, but it is generally accepted that this figure grossly underestimates the actual number of species in existence, which likely ranges between five and thirty million species, or even 100 million.
Meanwhile, a far less well-known fact is that even in countries with a long history of taxonomic research, such as Germany, which is currently known to be inhabited by about 48,000 animal species, there are thousands of insect species still awaiting discovery. In particular, the orders Diptera (flies) and Hymenoptera (especially the parasitoid wasps) are insect groups suspected to contain a strikingly large number of undescribed species. With almost 10,000 known species each, these two insect orders account for approximately two-thirds of Germany’s insect fauna, underlining the importance of these insects in many ways.
In its previous phases, GBOL aimed to identify all German species reliably, quickly and inexpensively using DNA barcodes. Since the first project was launched twelve years ago, more than 25,000 German animal species have been barcoded. Among them, the comparatively well-known groups, such as butterflies, moths, beetles, grasshoppers, spiders, bees and wasps, showed an almost complete coverage of the species inventory.
As part of the initiative, the project partners are invited to submit their results and outcomes in the dedicated GBOL III: Dark Taxa article collection in the peer-reviewed, open-access Biodiversity Data Journal. There, the contributions will be published dynamically, as soon as approved and ready for publication. The articles will include taxonomic revisions, checklists, data papers, contributions to methods and protocols, employed in DNA barcoding studies with a focus on the target taxa of the project.
“The collection of articles published in the Biodiversity Data Journal is an excellent approach to achieving the consortium’s goals and project partners are encouraged to take advantage of the journal’s streamlined publication workflows to publish and disseminate data and results that were generated during the project,”
says the collection’s editor Dr Stefan Schmidt of the Bavarian State Collection of Zoology.
Find and follow the dynamic article collection GBOL III: Dark Taxa in Biodiversity Data Journal.
As part of their project BioSCAN – devoted to the exploration of the unknown insect diversity in and around the city of Los Angeles – the scientists at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (USA) have already discovered numerous insects that are new to science, but they are still only guessing about the lifestyles of these species.
“Imagine trying to find a given 2 mm long fly in the environment and tracking its behavior: it is the smallest imaginable needle in the largest haystack. So when researchers discover new life histories, it is something worth celebrating,”
However, Brown and Maria Wong, former BioSCAN technician, while doing field work at the L.A. County Arboretum, were quick to reveal a curious peculiarity about one particular species discovered as part of the project a few years ago. They successfully lured female phorid flies by means of crushing tiny, invasive snails and using them as bait. In comparison, the majority of phorid flies, whose lifestyles have been observed, are parasitoids of social insects like ants.
Within mere seconds after the team crushed tiny invasive snails (Oxychilus draparnaudi), females representing the fly species Megaselia steptoeae arrived at the scene and busied themselves feeding. Brown and Wong then collected some and brought them home alive along with some dead snails. One of the flies even laid eggs. After hatching, the larvae were observed feeding upon the rotting snails and soon they developed to the pupal stage. However, none was reared to adulthood.
Interestingly, the host species – used by the fly to both feed on and lay eggs inside – commonly known as Draparnaud’s glass snail, is a European species that has been introduced into many parts of the world. Meanwhile, the studied fly is native to L.A. So far, it is unknown when and how the mollusc appeared on the menu of the insect.
To make things even more curious, species of other snail genera failed to attract the flies, which hints at a peculiar interaction worth of further study, point out the scientists behind the study, Brown and Jann Vendetti, curator of the NHM Malacology collection. They also hope to lure in other species of flies by crushing other species of snails.
In recent years, the BioSCAN project led to other curious discoveries from L.A., also published in Biodiversity Data Journal. In 2016, a whole batch of twelve previously unknown scuttle fly species was described from the heart of the city. A year later, another mysterious phorid fly was caught ovipositing in mushroom caps after Bed & Breakfast owners called in entomologists to report on what they had been observing in their yard.
We know that the Caucasus is a relatively large mountainous region, situated between Black and the Caspian seas. In its turn, it is divided into three subregions: Ciscaucasia, Greater Caucasus and Transcaucasia, also known as South Caucasus.
A closer look into the chromosome structure of mosquito larvae of a curious group of species (Chironomus “annularius” sensu Strenzke (1959)), collected from the three localities, has allowed Dr Mukhamed Karmokov of the Tembotov Institute of Ecology of Mountain territories at the Russian Academy of Science to figure out how the specificity of the Caucasian region has simultaneously unified its fauna geographically, yet has divided it evolutionarily. His paper is published in the open access journal Comparative Cytogenetics.
Having collected a sufficient amount of mosquito larvae, the researcher managed to study the chromosome structure, rearrangements and possible peculiarities of the separate Caucasian populations, in order to compare them.
Additionally, he analysed their relations to earlier known populations from Europe, Siberia, Kazakhstan and North America.
Amongst the curious peculiarities Karmokov identified in the chromosome structure of the studied larvae were some rearrangements which appear unique to Caucasus. Furthermore, he found that despite the close geographic proximity, the genetic distance between the Caucasian populations is quite significant, even While not enough to determine them as separate species, it could prove them as separate subspecies.
In conclusion, the scientist notes that the obtained data confirm that the Caucasian populations of the studied species have complex genetic structure and provide evidence for microevolution processes in the region.
Karmokov MKh (2018) Karyotype characteristics and chromosomal polymorphism of Chironomus “annularius” sensu Strenzke (1959) (Diptera, Chironomidae) from the Caucasus region. Comparative Cytogenetics 12(3): 267-284. https://doi.org/10.3897/CompCytogen.v12i3.25832
“As soon as I saw those bulging legs, I knew I had to name this one after Arnold,” says Brown. “Not only is he a major cultural icon and an important person in the political realm, his autobiography gave me some hope that I could improve my body as a skinny teenager.” For these reasons, Brown says, the former governor deserves to have the new fly named in his honor.
The fly is impressive in other ways, Brown explains. “It is known only from one female specimen that we almost overlooked because it is so incredibly small.”
In fact, it is the world’s smallest known fly, according to Brown, who should know, since he had previously described what was formerly the world’s smallest fly, at 0.400 mm in body length. The new fly, named Megapropodiphora arnoldi, is just a fraction smaller, coming in at 0.395 mm.
However, unlike the enlarged forelegs that prompted the naming, the mid- and hind legs appear to be highly reduced, and the wings reduced to tiny stubs.
Even though the fly has not been observed in the wild, Brown concludes that it is clearly a parasitoid, probably of ants or termites, based on its pointed, sharp ovipositor. He further speculates that these flies probably grab onto the hosts and “hold on for dear life” until they reach a nest or colony where they can parasitize their victims more effectively.
Brown has had considerable success finding new species of tiny flies, which he says are “the continuing frontier for insect discovery.”
Some of the more obvious, larger insects might have already been described, but by looking at smaller specimens, especially from remote, tropical sites, the entomologist finds that almost everything is new.
Even in his home city of Los Angeles, Brown and collaborators found that almost half of the phorid flies were previously unknown.
For example, it was last year that they finally figured why a secretive fly had been observed around mushrooms with no clear explanation for nearly 30 years. The revelation occurred when L.A. Bed & Breakfast owners Patsy Carter and Lisa Carter-Davis decided to alert entomologists about a phenomenon happening in their yard.
It turned out that these mushrooms were hosting the mysterious flies. Females were ovipositing in the mushroom caps with the larvae subsequently developing and feeding on the lower surface of the fungi, deep within the gills. Later, the larvae would exit the mushroom to pupate into the soil underneath before emerging as adults.
Most importantly, the team managed to collect specimens of the previously unknown males, which allowed them to successfully identify the mysterious species as Megaselia marquezi. Over the span of the BioScan Project, the species had already been known to be the sixth most commonly collected one around Los Angeles, yet its lifestyle has remained a secret until now.
“About 100 species, mostly of Megaselia, are known from Los Angeles, but many were new to science and had nothing known of their lifestyle,” explain the authors. “Matching a lifestyle with a species previously known only from a name is a significant accomplishment.”
They also noted that, “We can do great things with the help of citizen scientists, who extend our reach into urban areas that are generally off-limits”.
“Possibly, the widespread irrigation of lawns allows fungal growth that supports an abundant fungivore community, but our ignorance of the fauna of the surrounding natural areas makes such statements highly speculative.”
Brown B, Hartop E (2017) Mystery mushroom malingerers: Megaselia marquezi Hartop et al. 2015 (Diptera: Phoridae). Biodiversity Data Journal 5: e15052. https://doi.org/10.3897/BDJ.5.e15052
The first record of flower visitation in a group of fruit flies from Himalayan India and a total of four new species are described in the open access journal ZooKeys. In their paper, scientists also revise the descriptions of all representatives of this genus (Lordiphosa) in India.
Following a number of observations in Nainital and Darjeeling, India, the team of Dr Rajendra S. Fartyal and Pradeep C. Sati, both affiliated with HNB Garhwal University, Sushmika Pradhan, and Rabindra N. Chatterjee of University of Calcutta, Prof. M.J. Toda of Hokkaido University, and Mukul C. Kandpal and Birendra K. Singh of Kumaon University conclude that two of the new species visit the flowers of spiked ginger lily and angel’s trumpet.
The distributional range of the genus stretches from the tropics of the Oriental to the subarctic of the Palearctic region, with the highest species richness in the subtropics of the Orient. However, these fruit flies have been thought to be poorly represented in India with only seven species recorded so far.
Until now, the fruit flies in the genus Lordiphosa have been known to breed on herbaceous plants. Their larvae are either leaf miners, or feed on decayed leaves and stems.
The specimens used in the present study have been collected from four different hill stations in the Himalayan region in India. These localities are covered with dense mixed-deciduous subtropical forests. They are characterised with extremely moist conditions due to the heavy rainfall during the summer monsoon season.
The authors note that one of the revised species, named L. neokurokawai, has an extraordinary type of sex comb — a male-specific morphological feature composed of thick comb-like structures and located on the foreleg. This adaptation is only seen in two fruit fly genera. It is used in a variety of ways in tactile interactions between males and females during both courtship and mating.
The scientists point out that this finding is important when considering the evolution of the sex comb in the genus Lordiphosa. It is suggested that the sex comb has once evolved in an ancestor of the genus, and proceeded to rapidly diversify through sexual selection. However, “this hypothesis requires further investigation,” the authors say.
Fartyal RS, Sati PC, Pradhan S, Kandpal MC, Toda MJ, Chatterjee RN, Singh BK, Bhardwai A (2017) A review of the genus Lordiphosa Basden in India, with descriptions of four new species from the Himalayan region (Diptera, Drosophilidae). ZooKeys 688: 49-79. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.688.12590
The conjunctivitis-transmitting Oriental eye fly (Siphunculina funicola) has been recorded for the first time in China. In the same paper, published in the open access journal ZooKeys, a team of three scientists further describe three species of the same genus, which are new to science.
The studied flies in the genus Siphunculina present a number of curious insects, including the grass flies and the Oriental eye fly – a species that transmits conjunctivitis and other eye diseases to both humans and domestic animals. As the larvae feed on faeces or thrive in decaying flesh, they can usually be found in bird nests, excrement or carcasses.
Previously, the species had been known to inhabit other countries in eastern and southern Asia, where the flies amass around people and cattle, causing considerable annoyance and spreading eye diseases.