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

The Caucasus as an ‘island’ in the ‘sea’ of steppes: New insights in mosquito evolution

From a geographical point of view, the Caucasus is far from an island or even a peninsula, being a relatively big mountainous region appearing as a fence at the border of Europe and Asia, situated between the Black and the Caspian seas. However, a study into the chromosome structure of mosquito larvae of the species Glyptotendipes salinus, living by a saltwater lake in the foothills of the Caucasus, suggests that the region could be imagined as an “island” in the “sea” of steppes.

Scientists Dr Mukhamed Karmokov, Tembotov Institute of Ecology of Mountain territories, Russian Academy of Science, and Dr Azamat Akkizov, Institute of Biomedical Problems, RAS, and Center of Medico-Ecological Researches, have their paper, where they describe the Caucasian population of the species, published in the open access journal Comparative Cytogenetics.

Earlier, it has been known that in the Tambukan Lake, located at the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains, lives at least one of the representatives of the genus Glyptotendipes, more precisely, the species G. salinus. Actually, the process of studying the fauna of the genus in the Caucasus region has just began and many questions have remained unclear.

During their research, the authors collected a sufficient amount of larvae of G. salinus that made it possible to study the chromosome structure, rearrangements and peculiarities of the Caucasian population of the species. In addition, the authors tried to understand how the population relates to the previously studied ones, living in the Altai region of Russia and Kazakhstan.

Researchers found interesting, some of them even striking, peculiarities in the chromosome structure and morphology of the larvae from Caucasus. Namely, they found four new chromosome rearrangements, likely unique for the Caucasus. Also, some of the chromosome characters were most similar to the mosquitoes from Altai, while others — to the population in Kazakhstan. The most curious difference of the Caucasian larvae in comparison to data from earlier studies was that they were twice as short.

In conclusion, the authors note that from the obtained data it could be deduced that that the Caucasian population had undergone a significant divergence, or even that it represents a subspecies.

Also, it turns out that the Caucasus itself is a relatively isolated and complex region in terms of microevolution. “The Caucasus, in some sense, can be imagined as a relatively isolated territory, a special place, where evolution has made some unexpected twists,” they say.

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Original source:

Karmokov MKh, Akkizov AY (2016) Karyotype characteristics, larval morphology and chromosomal polymorphism peculiarities of Glyptotendipes salinus Michailova, 1983 (Diptera, Chironomidae) from Tambukan Lake, Central Caucasus. Comparative Cytogenetics 10(4): 571-585. https://doi.org/10.3897/compcytogen.v10i4.9400

Flying jewels spell death for tarantulas: Study of a North American spider fly genus

Spider flies are usually a rarely encountered group of insects, except in Western North America, where the North American jewelled spider flies (the Eulonchus genus) can be locally abundant in mountainous areas such as the Sierra Nevada of California. The brilliantly coloured adults (also known as ‘sapphires’ and ’emeralds’) are important pollinators of flowers.

The North American jewelled spider flies typically have large rounded bodies covered with dense hairs and metallic green to blue or even purple colouration, giving them a jewel-like appearance. Together, the elongated mouthparts, the metallic coloration and the eyes, covered with soft hairs, immediately set these flies apart from any other group of tarantula fly. The mouthparts are greatly elongated to help them feed on nectar from the flowers of more than 25 different plant families and 80 species.

However, their larvae are more insidious, seeking out and inserting themselves into tarantula hosts and slowly eating away their insides until they mature and burst out of the abdomen, killing the spider, and leaving behind only the skin. Once they have emerged from the host, they pupate to develop into adults.

image-1In the present study, published in the open access journal ZooKeys, six species of the genus are recognized in North America, including one from the Smokey Mountains, and five from the West, ranging from Mexico to Canada. Drs Christopher J. Borkent and Shaun L. Winterton, and PhD student Jessica P. Gillung, all affiliated with the California State Collection of Arthropods, USA, have redescribed all of them using cybertaxonomic methods of natural language description. A phylogenetic tree of the relationships among the species is also presented.

The examined individuals include many from the collection amassed by the late Dr. Evert Schlinger (1928-2014) over the span of more than 60 years. Today, the collection resides at the California Academy of Sciences (CAS). “Dr. Evert I. Sclinger was a world renowned expert on spider fly taxonomy and biology,” write the authors in the paper, which they dedicate to the scientist and his legacy.

All of the studied flies are relatively widely distributed, and locally abundant, except for a single species (E. marialiciae), which is known from only a few specimens, collected within a small contiguous area in the Great Smoky Mountains. However, the scientists suggest that future studies are needed to explore whether this is actually their full range.

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Original source:

Borkent CJ, Gillung JP, Winterton SL (2016) Jewelled spider flies of North America: a revision and phylogeny of Eulonchus Gerstaecker (Diptera, Acroceridae). ZooKeys 619: 103-146. doi: 10.3897/zookeys.619.8249

The city of angels and flies: 12 unknown scuttle fly species have been flying around L.A.

Although the second-largest and rather concrete metropolis in the United States might not be anywhere near one’s immediate association for a biodiversity hotspot, the fly fauna of Los Angeles is quite impressive. As part of BioSCAN, a project devoted to exploring the insect diversity in and around the city, a team of three entomologists report on their latest discovery – twelve new scuttle fly species. Their study is published in the open access Biodiversity Data Journal.

Launched in 2013, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County‘s project BioSCAN seems to never cease to amaze with large numbers of newly discovered species. The first phase of the study finished with 30 species of flies new to science from sites in 27 backyards, 1 community garden, the Los Angeles Ecovillage, and the Nature Gardens at the Museum. In recognition to the residents, who had literally let the scientists in their homes, each of those flies was named after the relevant site’s host.

When they decided to revisit the specimens they had collected during the first year of the project as well as older museum collections, the authors of the present paper were in fact quite certain they were about to find a new batch of unknown flies.

Img2 M. stoakesi

Having already described so many new scuttle fly species, the latest twelve had initially gone undercover, all being rare and often represented by only one specimen among the total of 43,651 collected individuals.

“The remarkable diversity of biologies of these flies makes them a varied and essential group to document in any ecosystem,” the entomologists explain.

The extensive BioSCAN project is still ongoing thanks to its passionate staff, international collaborators and advisors, as well as the large number of students and volunteers. Being especially grateful for their help, the scientists have named one of the fly species M. studentorum and another one – M. voluntariorum. The project is currently in its second phase of collecting.

“These volunteers are critical to our operation, and have contributed to everything from public outreach in the NHM Nature Lab to specialized work on phorid flies,” point out the authors.

In the end, the researchers hope that they will get their message across to other taxonomists, funding agencies, institutions and the public alike. Urban environments with their fast-changing conditions and biodiversity profile, need constant attention and scientific curiosity.

“There is an enormous taxonomic deficiency, including, or, perhaps, especially, in rapidly changing urban environments,” they say. “Taxonomists and their funding agencies must give time, attention and money to the environments surrounding their towns and cities.”Img3 M. wongae

“Baseline collections of urban fauna must be established in the present if there is hope for understanding the introductions and extinctions that will occur in the future,” they stress.

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Original source:

Hartop E, Brown B, Disney R (2016) Flies from L.A., The Sequel: A further twelve new species ofMegaselia (Diptera: Phoridae) from the BioSCAN Project in Los Angeles (California, USA).Biodiversity Data Journal 4: e7756. doi: 10.3897/BDJ.4.e7756

Surprising exotic flies in the backyard: New gnat species from Museum Koenig’s garden

Little did scientists Kai Heller and Björn Rulik expect to discover a new species in Germany’s Alexander Koenig Museum‘s garden upon placing a malaise trap for testing purposes. Not only did an unknown and strikingly coloured gnat get caught, but it turned out to be a species, which showed to have much more in common with its relatives from New Zealand. Their study is published in the open access Biodiversity Data Journal (BDJ).

While the genus, which the new dark-winged fungus gnat species belongs to, likely originates from the Australasian region, it was so far represented by only three species in Europe. None of them, however, stands out with the contrasting colouration of the presently announced fourth one.

The new gnat, called Ctenosciara alexanderkoenigi after the German museum’s founder, is described based on a single specimen caught in the framework of the German Barcode of Life Project (GBOL). Over three days, the scientists observed the flying insects getting caught in a malaise trap, placed among the predominantly non-native plants in the Alexander Koenig Museum’s garden. This tent-like structure is designed to catch flying insects. Once they fly into its walls, they get funnelled into a collecting bottle.

Upon noticing the beautiful striking colour of the fly, the two specialists were convinced they had just discovered a new to science species. Most of these flies are bright brownish, and the only other orange European dark-winged fungus gnat – almost uniformly orange. In contrast, the new species stands out with a mixture of reddish, black and yellowish-white hues. Based on the DNA-barcode match with New Zealand specimens, the authors concluded that the species must have arrived from the Australasian region in Europe quite recently.

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“It is a rare occurrence, that a species from the opposite end of the world is represented by a single specimen only and it is not yet clear, whether Ctenosciara alexanderkoenigi has a permanent population in Germany or if it was only introduced casually with plants or soil,” they explain. “Probably, the species was recently introduced from the Australasian Region. If it was a permanent member of the European fauna, a striking species like this would likely have been found earlier.”

In conclusion, the scientists note that modern technologies such as the high quality photo documentation, established as a standard by the BOLD project, DNA barcodes assigned with BINs, as well as facilitated by speedy publishing, have largely aided taxonomists to build on the biodiversity knowledge.

“We believe that the rapid description of Ctenosciara alexanderkoenigi, coupled with the BDJ reviewing system, might be a robust and ground-breaking way to accelerate and stabilise taxonomy in the future,” they finish their paper.

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Original source:

Heller K & Rulik B (2016) Ctenosciara alexanderkoenigi sp. n. (Diptera: Sciaridae), an exotic invader in Germany? Biodiversity Data Journal 4: e6460. doi: 10.3897/BDJ.4.e6460

The tip of an iceberg: Four new fungus gnat species from the Scandinavian north

One may think that the extreme north of Europe is low in insect life, except for the notorious blood-sucking flies. However, while it is a generally accepted truth that both plant and animal species’ count is higher the closer one gets to the Equator, some insects display anomalous diversity gradient. Such is the case for European fungus gnats, for example, a highly diverse group of true flies. No less than about 1000 species are known to occur in the Scandinavian Peninsula, representing about 83% of the continent’s total. Furthermore, undescribed fly species are continuously being discovered from North Europe.

In a recent paper published in Biodiversity Data Journal, four new species are described. These species have been collected from mires and old-growth forests of Finnish Lapland between 2012 and 2014. One of the species has a wider range, known from Sweden, Norway and Canada.

‘I must admit that it was a pleasure to give names to these species’ says Dr. Jukka Salmela, conservation biologist at Parks & Wildlife Finland (Metsahallitus). ‘These four species are really interesting, because they are rather distant to other known members of the genus Boletina. I am also confident that these species are very rare and may be dependent on old-growth forests or small water bodies such as springs and wetlands.’

The names of the new species all reflect northern nature in one way or another. Boletina valteri is named after Professor Valter Keltikangas, a forest researcher who made very demanding and physically tough field excursions to Finnish Lapland in the 1920’s and the ’30’s.

Boletina kullervoi derives from Kalevala, a Finnish national epic. It tells the story of an orphan, called Kullervo, who eventually kills his foster father and commits suicide. The violent story of Kullervo has also inspired composer Jean Sibelius for his first symphony, “Kullervo”.

Boletina hyperborea is self-explanatory, meaning far north. The species occurs in Yukon and in northern Scandinavia. Similarly, Boletina nuortti is named after the River Nuortti. In north Sami language nuorti means east. The gorgeous and wild River Nuortti flows from Finland to Russia.

No less than 100 Fennoscandian (Scandinavian) fungus gnat species await their formal description. ‘The boreal and Arctic nature still holds many secrets. Entomologists with simple gear such as sweep nets, Malaise traps and microscopes can still make notable discoveries even in rather well-studied regions such as Finland and Sweden. Samples collected from northern mires and boreal forests are never boring if one studies neglected groups such as small flies,’ says Jukka Salmela. “These four newly described taxa just represent a small fraction of the numerous undescribed northern fly species, so they are like a tip of an iceberg.”

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Original source:

Salmela J, Suuronen A, Kaunisto K (2016) New and poorly known Holarctic species of Boletina Staeger, 1840 (Diptera, Mycetophilidae). Biodiversity Data Journal 4: e7218. doi:10.3897/BDJ.4.e7218

 

Cage the fly: Walk-in field cages to assess mating compatibility in pest fruit flies

Fruit flies mating compatibility studies have been examined by an international team of researchers to assess the usefulness of walk-in field cages in studying the sexual behavior within fruit fly species complexes and recognition of taxonomically misplaced flies. In addition, they have also evaluated the relevant chemical signals during pheromone emission for species discrimination. The experimental part was conducted with the support of Joint FAO/IAEA Division of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture in Seibersdorf, Austria. Their findings are published in the open-access journal ZooKeys.

Evolution has led to divergence in some groups, which sometimes results in new, yet very similar species. Hence, they might successfully confuse taxonomists, making them coin terms like ‘cryptic’ species, or in other words, distinct species misplaced under the same name.

However, these species are kept isolated from each other via reproductive barriers. Preventing interbreeding and hybridization, they can be ecological and mechanical, but also behavioral (i.e. sexual). The latter are behaviors or signals that affect recognition within a species, as well as attractiveness and mate choice. They affect their evolution and therefore, are key elements in species differentiation.

The authors of the present paper have found that the walk-in field cages methodology provides an appropriate ground to study these issues. By applying it, researchers around the world are able to detect pest species among others when occurring in the same populations.

Apart from taxonomic value, the scientists also point out the significance of these findings to pest management. As the studied pest fruit fly species are agricultural pests of major economic importance, assessing their mating behaviour, including the pheromones the males emit when attracting partners, can be utilised in the development of highly specific control methods. For instance, there is the sterile insect technique that involves releasing males reproductively sterilised via ionizing radiation into a wild population, where they inseminate the pest females with sterile sperm so that they end up with unviable offspring.

The main advantage of using walk-in field cages, rather than small laboratory-based ones, is that they provide semi-natural conditions under which they are “reliable and powerful tools to measure the level of mating compatibility among different species and populations of a putative single species.”

However, the present paper highlights that such an approach is only to be applied as a part of integrative taxonomic analyses, together with molecular, physiological and morphological approaches when assessing to which species a particular pest population belongs.

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Original source:

Juarez ML, Devescovi F, Brizova R, Bachmann G, Segura DF, Kalinova B, Fernandez P, Ruiz MJ, Yang J, Teal PEA, Caceres C,, Vreysen MJB, Hendrichs J, Vera MT (2015) Evaluating mating compatibility within fruit fly cryptic species complexes and the potential role of sex pheromones in pre-mating isolation. In: De Meyer M, Clarke AR, Vera MT, Hendrichs J (Eds) Resolution of Cryptic Species Complexes of Tephritid Pests to Enhance SIT Application and Facilitate International Trade. ZooKeys 540: 125-155. doi: 10.3897/zookeys.540.6133

Novel cybercatalog of flower-loving flies suggests the digital future of taxonomy

Charting Earth’s biodiversity is the goal of taxonomy and to do so the scientists need to create an extensive citation network based on several hundred million pages of scientific literature. By providing a novel taxonomic ‘cybercatalog’ of southern African flower-loving (apiocerid) flies, Drs. Torsten Dikow and Donat Agosti demonstrate how the network of taxonomic knowledge can be made available through links provided to online data providers. Their work is available in the open-access Biodiversity Data Journal.

The present research showcases that the information cannot only be made available to the reader who follows the links, but also to machines that use the growing number of digital, online resources that are linked through persistent identifiers.

Primary data providers for taxonomic information such as species names (ZooBank), specimen images (Morphbank), species descriptions (Plazi), and digitized literature (BHL, Biodiversity Heritage Library; BioStor; and BLR, Biodiversity Literature Repository) play an important role in making data on species available in electronic form. Aggregators such as the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) and the Encyclopedia of Life (EoL) gather this information automatically to distribute it even further to audiences beyond the reach of the life sciences.

In contrast to previous species catalogs, in cybercatalogs access to information is provided through links to open-access, online data repositories such as the ones listed above. Taxonomists and other users can now access this literature, species descriptions, and specimen records immediately without a search in a natural history library or collection. The cybercatalog takes advantage of a new publishing platform within the Biodiversity Data Journal that makes it easy to upload species information and links to data about these species through a CheckList template. Furthermore, the Biodiversity Data Journal now allows future updates and re-publications of the cybercatalog with the new unique persistent identifier (DOI, Digital Object Identifier) whenever a new species is described or other taxonomic changes take place.

The authors argue that cybercatalogs are indeed the future of taxonomic catalogs since the online data in them are easily accessible to anyone.

“It is a taxonomist’s dream to have online access to all previously published information on a species and through this step the discipline of taxonomy can (re-)position itself as a central resource within the life sciences and beyond to the public and society at large,” add the authors. “Online access will also help to narrow the gap between the South and the North as a fantastic example of unhindered access to our knowledge of the global biological diversity, which is increasingly under pressure from human populations.”

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For the realization of this project Plazi and Pensoft were partially supported by the EC-FP7 EU BON project (ENV 30845) (Building the European Biodiversity Observation Network).

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Original source:

Dikow T, Agosti D (2015) Utilizing online resources for taxonomy: a cybercatalog of Afrotropical apiocerid flies (Insecta: Diptera: Apioceridae). Biodiversity Data Journal 3: e5707. doi: 10.3897/BDJ.3.e5707

One new fly species, zero dead bodies: First insect description solely from photographs

The importance of collecting dead specimens or not when verifying a new species has been a hot ongoing discussion for quite a while now. Amid voiced opinions ranging from specimen collection being “no longer required” to relying on anything but physical evidence being defined as mere “malpractice,” science is now witnessing the first description of an insect species based solely on high-resolution photographs.

The unequivocally new bee fly species belongs to an extremely rare genus and was described by Drs. Stephen A. Marshall from the University of Guelph, Canada, and Neal Evenhuis from the Bishop Museum, Hawaii. Their research along with their commentary on the controversial topic are published in the open-access journal ZooKeys.

The authors in no way denounce dead specimen collection and dissection and even speak of it as the “gold standard” in new species description, they stress the fact that given the continued increased difficulty in obtaining permits to collect in many areas, and the resulting low probability of collecting and preserving specimens, there ought to be an alternative.

The newly described bee fly species, called Marleyimyia xylocopae, is a huge fly with a remarkable resemblance to a co-occurring carpenter bee. The new species might be a parasite of the bee, but not much is known about its behaviour. Therefore, the scientists stress that more observations are needed, something that will be encouraged by the availability of a name and an associated image.

Speaking of their own experience while studying their presently described new species, the scientists point out that relying on several high-resolution photographs has not only increased their knowledge of the biodiversity of the area and the genus, but has also provided some “interesting ecological and biological information”.

“As these image collections become curated just as dead specimens are curated today, the digital specimens will find their way into the work of practicing taxonomists, and they will need names,” the team explained. “It is unrealistic to think that distinct and diagnosable new taxa known only from good photographs and appropriate associated metadata should be organized and referred to only as “undescribed species” when they can and should be organized and named using the existing rules of nomenclature.”

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Original source:

Marshall SA, Evenhuis NL (2015) New species without dead bodies: a case for photo-based descriptions, illustrated by a striking new species of Marleyimyia Hesse (Diptera, Bombyliidae) from South Africa. ZooKeys 525: 117-127. doi: 10.3897/zookeys.525.6143