New DNA barcoding project aims at tracking down the “dark taxa” of Germany’s insect fauna

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.

The conclusion that there are not only a few, but so many unknown species in Germany is a result of the earlier German Barcode of Life projects: GBOL I and GBOL II, both supported by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung, BMBF) and the Bavarian Ministry of Science under the project Barcoding Fauna Bavarica. 

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.

In 2020, another BMBF-funded DNA barcoding project, titled GBOL III: Dark Taxa, was launched, in order to focus on the lesser-known groups of Diptera and parasitoid Hymenoptera, which are often referred to as “dark taxa”. The new project commenced at three major German natural history institutions: the Zoological Research Museum Alexander Koenig (Bonn), the Bavarian State Collection of Zoology (SNSB, Munich) and the State Museum of Natural History Stuttgart, in collaboration with the University of Würzburg and the Entomological Society Krefeld. Together, the project partners are to join efforts and skills to address a range of questions related to the taxonomy of the “dark taxa” in Germany.

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.

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Find and follow the dynamic article collection GBOL III: Dark Taxa in Biodiversity Data Journal.

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Tiny fly from Los Angeles has a taste for crushed invasive snails

Living individual of Draparnaud’s glass snail
Photo by Kat Halsey

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,”

explains Dr. Brian Brown, lead author of a recent paper, published in the scholarly open-access Biodiversity Data Journal.

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.

Female phorid fly feeding on a crushed Draparnaud’s glass snail
Photo by Kat Halsey

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.

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In recent years, the BioSCAN project led to other curious discoveries from L.A., also published in Biodiversity Data JournalIn 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.

Original source:

Brown BV, Vendetti JE (2020) Megaselia steptoeae (Diptera: Phoridae): specialists on smashed snails. Biodiversity Data Journal 8: e50943. https://doi.org/10.3897/BDJ.8.e50943

Mosquito populations give a new insight into the role of Caucasus in evolution

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.

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Original source:

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

New ‘big-armed fly’ species named after former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger

New species can be named for all types of attributes, but Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County entomologist Brian Brown knew exactly what name to give a bizarre new fly species he discovered in the Brazilian Amazon.

“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.

His research article is published in the open access Biodiversity Data Journal.

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.

MegapropodiphoraHowever, 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.

Back in 2016, Brian and his team described at once a total of twelve scuttle fly species new to science after ‘field’ trips in the backyards of houses around the city of angels.

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Original source:

Citation: Brown B (2018) A second contender for “world’s smallest fly” (Diptera: Phoridae). Biodiversity Data Journal 6: e22396. https://doi.org/10.3897/BDJ.6.e22396

A Bed & Breakfast in L.A. reveals the lifestyle of a secretive fly species

For nearly 30 years, Dr. Brian Brown knew about a mysterious unidentified phorid fly species, whose females would often be spotted flying above mushrooms, while the males were nowhere to be found.

Little did anyone know that this years-long puzzle would be solved once and for all after a surprising call came in earlier this year, in April.

Los Angeles Bed & Breakfast owners Patsy Carter and Lisa Carter-Davis had decided to alert entomologists about the newly emerged numerous mushrooms in their yard.

The study is published in the open access Biodiversity Data Journal by Dr. Brian Brown and his colleague at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, Emily A. Hartop. It is the latest in a series of publications resulting from the extensive BioScan Project, which surveys the biodiversity in the Los Angeles area and was launched in 2012 by the NHMLA.

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.”

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Original source:

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

Four new fruit fly species from the Himalaya and information about their flower visitation

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.

12590_Image 2Following 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.

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Original source:

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 Oriental eye fly that transmits conjunctivitis newly recorded in China

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.

The scientists Dr. Xiaoyan Liu, Huazhong Agricultural University, China, Dr. Ding Yang, China Agricultural University and Dr. Emilia P. Nartshuk, Russian Academy of Sciences, collected the Oriental eye fly in Hainan, the southernmost province of China.

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.

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Original source:

Liu X-Y, Nartshuk EP, Yang D (2017) Three new species and one new record of the genus Siphunculina from China (Diptera, Chloropidae). ZooKeys 687: 73-88. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.687.13156

Shadow-loving insect named after Tuomas Holopainen of Nightwish

Tuomas Holopainen, the multi-talented musician and founder of the symphonic metal band Nightwish, is also a full-blooded nature person. This gave conservation biologist Jukka Salmela of Metsähallitus Parks & Wildlife Finland an idea for the name of a new species he found in Finland. Discovered in eastern Lapland during an insect survey, the fungus gnat was given the scientific name Sciophila holopaineni after Tuomas. The new species is described in the open access Biodiversity Data Journal.

“I am very, very touched. This is the highest honour a nature nerd like me can receive,” Tuomas Holopainen replied after Jukka, who collected and described the fungus gnat, asked him for permission to name the species after him.

The idea for the name came up to Salmela while he was thinking about the habitat and appearance of the species. Then, he recalled Tuomas Holopainen’s interest in the natural sciences.

So far, the new species of fungus gnat has been only known from two locations: the Törmäoja Natura Area in Savukoski, eastern Lapland, and a meadow close to the White Sea, Russian Karelia.

The dark and beautiful gnat thrives in shadowy environments. In Törmäoja, it was caught in a river gulch next to the river source, while hiding under the shelter of the forest. Salmela proposes ‘tuomaanvarjokainen’ as the common Finnish name, inspired by the latest Nightwish album. After all, the themes of the album, Endless Forms Most Beautiful, are evolution and the diversity of nature.

Fungus gnats are flies, which feed on dead wood or fungi. Some of the larvae are predaceous. At current count, there are almost 800 species in Finland and about 1,000 in the Nordic countries. In fact, the Fennoscandia region is one of Europe’s biodiversity hotspots for this group of insects.

The Tuomas Holopainen’s species is only one of the eight new flies described in the study. Among them are the Boletina norokorpii fungus gnat, named after Docent Yrjö Norokorpi and known only from Ylitornio; Phronia reducta, which inhabits Salla and Siberia; and Orfelia boreoalpina found in Törmäoja and the German Alps.

The Parks & Wildlife Finland of Metsähallitus is responsible for the management and species surveys of the State’s nature reserves. The collected data is needed in activities such as assessing the status of biodiversity, the protection of species, and planning the management and use of the reserves. Insects are as good an indicator of the state of the natural environment as better-known vertebrates or plants. The diversity of insect species forms part of natural biodiversity and is necessary to human well-being.

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Original source:

Salmela J, Kolcsár L (2017) New and poorly known Palaearctic fungus gnats (Diptera, Sciaroidea). Biodiversity Data Journal 5: e11760. https://doi.org/10.3897/BDJ.5.e11760

Rarely-seen event of ant brood parasitism by scuttle flies video-documented

While many species of scuttle flies are associated with ants, their specific interactions with their hosts are largely unknown. Brood parasitism (attacking the immature stages, rather than the adult ants), for example, is an extremely rarely observed and little-studied phenomenon. However, a research team from the USA and Brazil, led by Dr. Brian Brown, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, have recently video-documented two such occasions. The observations are published in the open access Biodiversity Data Journal.

One of the videos, taken in Brazil, shows female scuttle flies attacking ants evacuating their nest. Having had their colony exposed, worker ants try to carry the brood to the nearest shelter. The flies follow these workers on foot, and bump into them in attempt to make them drop the larvae. The scientists have provided a video of an ant which, when harassed, left a larva in a partially exposed position and fled. Immediately, the fly attacked the larva, laying an egg inside its body. The fact that the flies attack the relatively soft-bodied larvae explains the puzzling structure of the ovipositor (egg-layer) of this species (Ceratoconus setipennis), which appears much less hardened than the ovipositor of species attacking adult ants. As a result of the present observation, however, their association with ants is no longer a mystery.

The second footage, filmed in Costa Rica, shows an undescribed species of scuttle fly (genus Apocephalus) that fly above the ants. When they spot a worker carrying brood, it would plunge down to it, approach the ant from behind and land on the (in this case) pupa. Then, it flips over onto its back, keeping the pupa between itself and the ant, while it lays an egg into the pupa from an upside-down position.

“The video documentation of two very different types of brood parasitism of ant species by scuttle flies was recorded in two countries within just a few months of one another,” conclude the authors. “This hints at the many remarkable behaviors of phorid flies that may still await discovery by the patient observer. It appears brood parasitism may not be as rare as was once assumed, and that there may be a tremendous amount of information to uncover about these behaviors.”

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Original source:

Brown B, Hash J, Hartop E, Porras W, Amorim D (2017) Baby Killers: Documentation and Evolution of Scuttle Fly (Diptera: Phoridae) Parasitism of Ant (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) Brood. Biodiversity Data Journal 5: e11277. https://doi.org/10.3897/BDJ.5.e11277

Assassins on the rise: A new species and a new tribe of endemic South African robber flies

Discovery of a new species of assassin flies led to the redescription of its genus. This group of curious predatory flies live exclusively in South Africa, preferring relatively dry habitats. Following the revisit, authors Drs Jason Londt, KwaZulu-Natal Museum, South Africa, and Torsten Dikow, Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History, USA, publish updated information about all species within the genus, now counting a total of seven species, and also establish a new tribe. Their study is published in the open access journal African Invertebrates.

The family of assassin flies (Asilidae), also known as robber flies, are curious insects, which have received their common name due to their extremely predatory behavior. The assassin flies prey on a great variety of insects, including beetles, moths, butterflies, wasps, other flies, as well as some spiders, as early as their juvenile stage of development. When hunting, they would ambush their prey and catch it in flight. Then, they would pierce the victim with a short and strong proboscis, while injecting venom. Once in the body of the prey, it quickly dissolves the insides, so that the assassin fly can suck them out.

The published study was spawned by the collection of new specimens of previously described assassin flies of the species Trichoura tankwa by the junior author in December 2015. These specimens could not be easily identified and so the authors started to look at all available specimens in natural history museums.

image-2The new species, called Trichoura pardeos, was discovered in Tierberg Nature Reserve by the authors in 2004, a small conservation area located on the north banks of the Gariep River in the Northern Cape province of South Africa. The habitat comprises almost entirely a large rocky hill, where the vegetation is scarce and dominated by drought-resistant plants, such as aloes. The fly is predominantly red-brown in colour, with silvery, white and yellowish markings.

Having noted morphological variation between the species inhabiting areas with differently timed yearly rainfalls, the entomologists suggest that two groups within the studied genus have adapted to these different patterns in western and eastern South Africa. They also expect that species representing Trichoura could be also dwelling in Namibia, Botswana, Mozambique and possibly Zimbabwe.

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Original source:

Londt J, Dikow T (2016) A review of the genus Trichoura Londt, 1994 with the description of a new species from the Northern Cape Province of South Africa and a key to world Willistonininae (Diptera, Asilidae). African Invertebrates 57 (2): 119-135. https://doi.org/10.3897/AfrInvertebr.57.10772