New unusual bee species discovered with dog-like snout

Published in the Journal of Hymenoptera Research, author Dr Kit Prendergast named the new species after her pet dog Zephyr.

A new native bee species with a dog-like “snout” has been discovered in Perth bushland though Curtin-led research that sheds new light on our most important pollinators.

Published in the Journal of Hymenoptera Research, author Dr Kit Prendergast, from the Curtin School of Molecular and Life Sciences, has named the new species after her pet dog Zephyr after noticing a protruding part of the insect’s face looked similar to a dog’s snout, and to acknowledge the role her dog played in providing emotional support during her PhD.

Dr Prendergast said the rare and remarkable finding would add to existing knowledge about our evolving biodiversity and ensure the bees, named Leioproctus zephyr, were protected by conservation efforts.

“When I first examined the specimens that I collected during my PhD surveys discovering the biodiversity of native bees in urbanised regions of the southwest WA biodiversity hotspot, I was instantly intrigued by the bee’s very unusual face,” Dr Prendergast said.

Insects in general are so diverse and so important, yet we don’t have scientific descriptions or names for so many of them.

Dr Kit Prendergast

“When I went to identify it, I found it matched no described species, and I was sure that if it was a known species, it would be quite easy to identify given how unusual it was in appearance.

“You can only confirm a particular species once you look at them under a microscope and go through the long process of trying to match their characteristics against other identified species, then going through museum collections.

“When perusing the WA Museum’s Entomology collection, I discovered that a few specimens of Leioproctus zephyrus had first been collected in 1979, but it had never been scientifically described.”

Dr Prendergast said she was excited to play a role in making this species known and officially naming them.

“Insects in general are so diverse and so important, yet we don’t have scientific descriptions or names for so many of them,” Dr Prendergast said.

“The Leioproctus zephyr has a highly restricted distribution, only occurring in seven locations across the southwest WA to date, and have not been collected from their original location. They were entirely absent from residential gardens and only present at five urban bushland remnants that I surveyed, where they foraged on two plant species of Jacksonia.

“Not only is this species fussy, they also have a clypeus that looks like a snout. Hence, I named them after my dog Zephyr. She has been so important to my mental health and wellbeing during the challenging period of doing a PhD and beyond.”

Through DNA barcoding, Dr Prendergast was able to confirm that the new species was most closely related to other species of unidentified Leioproctus.

Originally published by Curtin University. Republished with permission.

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#TDWG2022 recap: TDWG and Pensoft welcomed 400 biodiversity information experts from 41 countries in Sofia

For the 37th time, experts from across the world to share and discuss the latest developments surrounding biodiversity data and how they are being gathered, used, shared and integrated across time, space and disciplines.

Between 17th and 21st October, about 400 scientists and experts took part in a hybrid meeting dedicated to the development, use and maintenance of biodiversity data, technologies, and standards across the world.

This year, the conference was hosted by Pensoft in collaboration with the National Museum of Natural History (Bulgaria) and the Institute of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Research at the Bulgarian Academy of Science. It ran under the theme “Stronger Together: Standards for linking biodiversity data”.

For the 37th time, the global scientific and educational association Biodiversity Information Standards (TDWG) brought together experts from all over the globe to share and discuss the latest developments surrounding biodiversity data and how they are being gathered, used, shared and integrated across time, space and disciplines.

This was the first time the event happened in a hybrid format. It was attended by 160 people on-site, while another 235 people joined online. 

The TDWG 2022 conference saw plenty of networking and engaging discussions with as many as 160 on-site attendees and another 235 people, who joined the event remotely.

The conference abstracts, submitted by the event’s speakers ahead of the meeting, provide a sneak peek into their presentations and are all publicly available in the TDWG journal Biodiversity Information Science and Standards (BISS).

“It’s wonderful to be in the Balkans and Bulgaria for our Biodiversity Information and Standards (TDWG) 2022 conference! Everyone’s been so welcoming and thoughtfully engaged in conversations about biodiversity information and how we can all collaborate, contribute and benefit,”

said Deborah Paul, Chair of TDWG, a biodiversity informatics specialist and community liaison at the University of Illinois, Prairie Research Institute‘s Illinois Natural History Survey and also an active participant in the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC), the Entomological Collections Network (ECN), ICEDIG, the Research Data Alliance (RDA), and The Carpentries.

“Our TDWG mission is to create, maintain and promote the use of open, community-driven standards to enable sharing and use of biodiversity data for all,”

she added.
Prof Lyubomir Penev (Pensoft) and Deborah Paul (TDWG) at TDWG 2022.

“We are proud to have been selected to be the hosts of this year’s TDWG annual conference and are definitely happy to have joined and observed so many active experts network and share their know-how and future plans with each other, so that they can collaborate and make further progress in the way scientists and informaticians work with biodiversity information,”  

said Pensoft’s founder and CEO Prof. Lyubomir Penev.

“As a publisher of multiple globally renowned scientific journals and books in the field of biodiversity and ecology, at Pensoft we assume it to be our responsibility to be amongst the first to implement those standards and good practices, and serve as an example in the scholarly publishing world. Let me remind you that it is the scientific publications that present the most reliable knowledge the world and science has, due to the scrutiny and rigour in the review process they undergo before seeing the light of day,”

he added.

***

In a nutshell, the main task and dedication of the TDWG association is to develop and maintain standards and data-sharing protocols that support the infrastructures (e.g., The Global Biodiversity Information Facility – GBIF), which aggregate and facilitate use of these data, in order to inform and expand humanity’s knowledge about life on Earth.

It is the goal of everyone at TDWG to let scientists interested in the world’s biodiversity to do their work efficiently and in a manner that can be understood, shared and reused.

It is the goal of everyone volunteering their time and expertise to TDWG to enable the scientists interested in the world’s biodiversity to do their work efficiently and in a manner that can be understood, shared and reused by others. After all, biodiversity data underlie everything we know about the natural world.

If there are optimised and universal standards in the way researchers store and disseminate biodiversity data, all those biodiversity scientists will be able to find, access and use the knowledge in their own work much more easily. As a result, they will be much better positioned to contribute new knowledge that will later be used in nature and ecosystem conservation by key decision-makers.

On Monday, the event opened with welcoming speeches by Deborah Paul and Prof. Lyubomir Penev in their roles of the Chair of TDWG and the main host of this year’s conference, respectively.

The opening ceremony continued with a keynote speech by Prof. Pavel Stoev, Director of the Natural History Museum of Sofia and co-host of TDWG 2022. 

Prof. Pavel Stoev (Natural History Museum of Sofia) with a presentation about the known and unknown biodiversity of Bulgaria during the opening plenary session of TDWG 2022.

He walked the participants through the fascinating biodiversity of Bulgaria, but also the worrying trends in the country associated with declining taxonomic expertise. 

He finished his talk with a beam of hope by sharing about the recently established national unit of DiSSCo, whose aim – even if a tad too optimistic – is to digitise one million natural history items in four years, of which 250,000 with photographs. So far, one year into the project, the Bulgarian team has managed to digitise more than 32,000 specimens and provide images to 10,000 specimens.

The plenary session concluded with a keynote presentation by renowned ichthyologist and biodiversity data manager Dr. Richard L. Pyle, who is also a manager of ZooBank – the key international database for newly described species.

Keynote presentation by Dr Richard L. Pyle (Bishop Museum, USA) at the opening plenary session of TDWG 2022.

In his talk, he highlighted the gaps in the ways taxonomy is being used, thereby impeding biodiversity research and cutting off a lot of opportunities for timely scientific progress.

“There are simple things we can do to change how we use taxonomy as a tool that would dramatically improve our ability to conduct science and understand biodiversity. There is enormous value and utility within existing databases around the world to understand biodiversity, how threatened it is, what impacts human activity has (especially climate change), and how to optimise the protection and preservation of biodiversity,”

he said in an interview for a joint interview by the Bulgarian News Agency and Pensoft.

“But we do not have easy access to much of this information because the different databases are not well integrated. Taxonomy offers us the best opportunity to connect this information together, to answer important questions about biodiversity that we have never been able to answer before. The reason meetings like this are so important is that they bring people together to discuss ways of using modern informatics to greatly increase the power of the data we already have, and prioritise how we fill the gaps in data that exist. Taxonomy, and especially taxonomic data integration, is a very important part of the solution.”

Pyle also commented on the work in progress at ZooBank ten years into the platform’s existence and its role in the next (fifth) edition of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, which is currently being developed by the International Commission of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN). 

“We already know that ZooBank will play a more important role in the next edition of the Code than it has for these past ten years, so this is exactly the right time to be planning new services for ZooBank. Improvements at ZooBank will include things like better user-interfaces on the web to make it easier and faster to use ZooBank, better data services to make it easier for publishers to add content to ZooBank as part of their publication workflow, additional information about nomenclature and taxonomy that will both support the next edition of the Code, and also help taxonomists get their jobs done more efficiently and effectively. Conferences like the TDWG one are critical for helping to define what the next version of ZooBank will look like, and what it will do.”

***

During the week, the conference participants had the opportunity to enjoy a total of 140 presentations; as well as multiple social activities, including a field trip to Rila Monastery and a traditional Bulgarian dinner.

TDWG 2022 conference participants document their species observations on their way to Rila Monastery.

While going about the conference venue and field trip localities, the attendees were also actively uploading their species observations made during their stay in Bulgaria on iNaturalist in a TDWG2022-dedicated BioBlitz. The challenge concluded with a total of 635 observations and 228 successfully identified species.

Amongst the social activities going on during TDWG 2022 was a BioBlitz, where the conference participants could uploade their observations made in Bulgaria on iNaturalist and help each other successfully identify the specimens.

***

In his interview for the Bulgarian News Agency and Pensoft, Dr Vincent Smith, Head of the Informatics Division at the Natural History Museum, London (United Kingdom), co-founder of DiSSCo, the Distributed System of Scientific Collections, and the Editor-in-Chief of Biodiversity Data Journal, commented: 

“Biodiversity provides the support systems for all life on Earth. Yet the natural world is in peril, and we face biodiversity and climate emergencies. The consequences of these include accelerating extinction, increased risk from zoonotic disease, degradation of natural capital, loss of sustainable livelihoods in many of the poorest yet most biodiverse countries of the world, challenges with food security, water scarcity and natural disasters, and the associated challenges of mass migration and social conflicts.

Solutions to these problems can be found in the data associated with natural science collections. DiSSCo is a partnership of the institutions that digitise their collections to harness their potential. By bringing them together in a distributed, interoperable research infrastructure, we are making them physically and digitally open, accessible, and usable for all forms of research and innovation. 

At present rates, digitising all of the UK collection – which holds more than 130 million specimens collected from across the globe and is being taken care of by over 90 institutions – is likely to take many decades, but new technologies like machine learning and computer vision are dramatically reducing the time it will take, and we are presently exploring how robotics can be applied to accelerate our work.”

Dr Vincent Smith, Head of the Informatics Division at the Natural History Museum, London, co-founder of DiSSCo, and Editor-in-Chief of Biodiversity Data Journal at the TDWG 2022 conference.

In his turn, Dr Donat Agosti, CEO and Managing director at Plazi – a not-for-profit organisation supporting and promoting the development of persistent and openly accessible digital taxonomic literature – said:

“All the data about biodiversity is in our libraries, that include over 500 million pages, and everyday new publications are being added. No person can read all this, but machines allow us to mine this huge, very rich source of data. We do not know how many species we know, because we cannot analyse with all the scientists in this library, nor can we follow new publications. Thus, we do not have the best possible information to explore and protect our biological environment.”

Dr Donat Agosti demonstrating the importance of publishing biodiversity data in a structured and semantically enhanced format in one of his presentations at TDWG 2022.

***

At the closing plenary session, Gail Kampmeier – TDWG Executive member and one of the first zoologists to join TDWG in 1996 – joined via Zoom to walk the conference attendees through the 37-year history of the association, originally named the Taxonomic Databases Working Group, but later transformed to Biodiversity Information Standards, as it expanded its activities to the whole range of biodiversity data. 

“While this presentation is about TDWG’s history as an organisation, its focus will be on the heart of TDWG: its people. We would like to show how the organisation has evolved in terms of gender balance, inclusivity actions, and our engagement to promote and enhance diversity at all levels. But more importantly, where do we—as a community—want to go in the future?”,

reads the conference abstract of her colleague at TDWG Dr Visotheary Ung (CNRS-MNHN) and herself.

Then, in the final talk of the session, Deborah Paul took to the stage to present the progress and key achievements by the association from 2022.

She gave a special shout-out to the TDWG journal: Biodiversity Information Science and Standards (BISS), where for the 6th consecutive year, the participants of the annual conference submitted and published their conference abstracts ahead of the event. 

Deborah Paul reminds that – apart from the conference abstracts – the TDWG journal: Biodiversity Information Science and Standards (BISS) also welcomes full-lenght articles that demonstrate the development or application of new methods and approaches in biodiversity informatics.

Launched in 2017 on the Pensoft’s publishing platform ARPHA, the journal provides the quite unique and innovative opportunity to have both abstracts and full-length research papers published in a modern, technologically-advanced scholarly journal. In her speech, Deborah Paul reminded that BISS journal welcomes research articles that demonstrate the development or application of new methods and approaches in biodiversity informatics in the form of case studies.

Amongst the achievements of TDWG and its community, a special place was reserved for the Horizon 2020-funded BiCIKL project (abbreviation for Biodiversity Community Integrated Knowledge Library), involving many of the association’s members. 

Having started in 2021, the 3-year project, coordinated by Pensoft, brings together 14 partnering institutions from 10 countries, and 15 biodiversity under the common goal to create a centralised place to connect all key biodiversity data by interlinking a total of 15 research infrastructures and their databases.

Deborah Paul also reported on the progress of the Horizon 2020-funded project BiCIKL, which involves many of the TDWG members. BiCIKL’s goal is to create a centralised place to connect all key biodiversity data by interlinking 15 key research infrastructures and their databases.

In fact, following the week-long TDWG 2022 conference in Sofia, a good many of the participants set off straight for another Bulgarian city and another event hosted by Pensoft. The Second General Assembly of BiCIKL took place between 22nd and 24th October in Plovdiv.

***

You can also explore highlights and live tweets from TDWG 2022 on Twitter via #TDWG2022.
The Pensoft team at TDWG 2022 were happy to become the hosts of the 37th TDWG conference.

Now accepting contributions on the impact of alien insects in the Alpine ecosystem

Alpine Entomology invites researchers to submit their work assessing the possible impacts of invasive insects on mountain areas.

Invasive insects can be vectors of diseases, cause damage to agriculture and forestry, and threaten native biodiversity. Recognising this dramatic impact, the open-access journal Alpine Entomology, published by Pensoft on behalf of the Swiss Entomological Society, opened a dedicated topical collection that is already accepting submissions.

Impacts of alien insects in the Alpine ecosystem invites scientists working on invasive species and plant-insect interactions in Alpine regions to openly publish their research articles, review articles, and short communications on, among others, trends or changes in biogeography of emblematic species, shifts in current distributions, or niche replacement.

The new article collection will be edited by Oliver Martin of ETH Zürich, subject editor and editorial board member at Alpine Entomology, Stève Breitenmoser, and Dominique Mazzi.

“Recent years have seen a worldwide increase in invasions by alien species, especially plants and insects, mostly due to trade and climate change,” they explain, noting that although numerous studies exist on the topic, few of them focus on the Alpine areas.

“With this collection we hope to generate exciting discussions and exchange within the scientific community interested in this very particular and sensitive ecosystem,” the editors say, inviting authors to submit their manuscripts assessing the possible impacts of invasive insects on mountain areas.

The collection will remain open for submissions for the next two years. In the meantime, the accepted manuscripts will be published on a rolling basis, as soon as they are ready for publication.

Alpine Entomology is currently accepting submissions to one other topical collection, Trends in arthropods of alpine aquatic ecosystems.

Follow Alpine Entomology on Twitter and Facebook.

A provisional checklist of European butterfly larval foodplants

For the first time, a list of the currently accepted plant names utilised by 471 European butterfly larvae is presented, with references.

Guest blog post by Harry E. Clarke, Independent Researcher

5th instar Swallowtail larvae feeding on Milk-parsley.

Many books on butterflies publish lists of their larval foodplants. However, many of these lists of larval foodplants have been copied from previous lists, which in turn have been copied from previous lists. Consequently, errors have crept in, and many plant names have long been superseded. This can result in duplicates in the list, with the same plant being given two different names. Most plant lists do not include the authority, which can make it difficult or impossible to identify which plant is being referred to. Some of these plants may not be used by butterflies in Europe, but elsewhere in their range. Or the plants may have been used in breeding experiments, but not used by the butterflies in the wild.

Many of these publications providing the larval foodplants of butterflies only provide the binomial name, without specifying the author. This can create problems in knowing which species of plant is being used, as the same plant name has been used in the past by different authors to describe different species. In some cases, distribution can be used to determine the correct species, but plants can often have similar distributions. For example, in the World Checklist of Vascular Plants, there are 40 entries for the plant with the scientific name Centaurea paniculata, which refer to thirteen different accepted species, depending on authors, subspecies, and variety or form.

Not quite so simple: updating the current lists of larval foodplants

With climate change and habitat loss threatening numerous species, the conservation of butterflies (and other animals) is becoming more important. Whilst many factors determine the distribution of butterflies, such as temperature and rainfall, their survival depends solely on the kinds of plants their larvae eat. Accurate lists of larval foodplants are therefore important to find out where to direct limited conservation resources for the best result.

What started out as a straightforward job of updating the existing lists of larval foodplants with currently accepted names turned out to be a far bigger job. Many of the lists are incomplete, and may vary throughout the range of the butterfly. Here, errors have crept in too. Many references provide incomplete, unverifiable information. Many species of butterfly lay their eggs off-host, rather than on the host plant. For example, the Silver-washed Fritillary (Argynnis paphia)oviposits on tree trunks above where Viola species are growing. Consequently, oviposition records need to be treated with caution, depending on the species.

What do butterfly larvae eat, and why does it matter?

Butterfly larvae can be very fussy about which plants they can use. 20% of European butterfly larvae are monophagous, feeding on just one species of plant. 50% are oligophagous, feeding on a few different closely related plants, whilst 30% are polyphagous feeding on plants in many different families. The Holy Blue (Celastrina argiolus) can utilise plants in an astonishing 19 different families.

The oligophagous butterflies can be divided into two groups:

  • Oligophagous-monophagous (OM) – feeding on one plant species in one region, and another species in another region.
  • Oligophagous-polyphagous (OP) – feeding on several closely related species of plants throughout their range, usually in the same genus, or a closely related genus.
4th instar Small Tortoiseshell feeding on Common Nettle.

Plant preferences are only known for a few species of butterflies. For example, the English race of the Swallowtail (Papilio machaon) feeds on Milk-parsley (Peucedanum palustre), whereas in the rest of Europe it has been recorded on 62 other plants. The main larval foodplant of the Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae) is Common Nettle(Urtica dioica), although it will occasionally use other plants.

The survivability of larvae on different plants is largely unknown, except in a few cases where the butterfly species has been studied in detail. There are plants that larvae may be able to eat, but that would likely not help them survive to pupation.

Two species are known to switch their larval foodplant during their second year of development. The Scarce Fritillary (Euphydryas maturna),for example, switches from Ash (Fraxinus excelsior) to Guelder-rose (Viburnum opulus). The Northern Grizzled Skipper (Pyrgus centaureae) switches from Dwarf birch (Betula nana) to Cloudberry (Rubus chamaemorus).

The most delicious plants

For the first time, a list of the current accepted plant names utilised by 471 European butterfly larvae is presented, with references. Where possible, errors in previous lists have been removed. The list of larval foodplants doubled compared to previous published lists. This has resulted in a list of 1506 different plant species in 72 different families. 86 plant records are only known at the generic level. Larval foodplants of 25 butterfly species are currently unknown, which are mostly the “Browns” (Satyrinae), which probably feed on grasses (Poaceae), or possibly sedges (Cyperaceae).

Whilst most plant families are utilised by less than six butterfly species, a few plant families are particularly favoured, with grasses (Poaceae) and legumes (Fabaceae) being the most popular. Similarly, most plant species are only utilised by a few butterfly species, but the fine grasses Sheep’s Fescue (Festuca ovina) and Red Fescue (Festuca rubra) are favoured by a large number of butterfly species.

Taxonomic splits create problems. Where cryptic species are allopatric, records can be allocated on the basis of their distribution. But where cryptic species are sympatric, this will require a resurvey to determine the larval foodplants. It cannot be assumed that two cryptic butterfly species use the same plants, as something has to become different for them to evolve into separate species.

Looking forward

Future publications should ensure that old and ambiguous plant names are not used. Plant names should be specified with their full scientific name, as specified by the International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants. The World Checklist of Vascular Plants should be checked to ensure the currently accepted plant name is being used.

Fully documented records are needed of what larval foodplants butterfly larvae are utilising in the wild. To get a better understanding of usage, full details need to be recorded, including date, location, altitude, abundance, and larval stage. Abundance will help in the understanding of preferences. To allow records to be properly verified, evidence should be provided on how the larvae and plants were identified. Regional lists are also important – to help direct conservation efforts to the plants being used locally, rather than elsewhere. This list of larval foodplants is provided as a step towards a fully justified database, which will be updated as and when corrections are found. It highlights those 25 butterfly species whose larval foodplants are currently unknown.

4th instar Chequered Skipper (Carterocephalus palaemon) larvae feeding on Purple Moor-grass (Molinia caerulea).

Research article:

Clarke HE (2022) A provisional checklist of European butterfly larval foodplants. Nota Lepidopterologica 45: 139-167. https://doi.org/10.3897/nl.45.72017

Festschrift for Dr Jason Londt at African Invertebrates invites submissions

African Invertebrates invites any submissions linked to Jason, new species descriptions, revisions of taxa he has worked on, or any work based on specimens he collected.

From 1976 to 1994, Jason Londt was Assistant Director at the Natal Museum (now KwaZulu-Natal Museum) in South Africa, publisher of the African Invertebrates journal. Then, he became Director before retiring in 2003.

During his career at the Museum and well after that, Jason described more than 570 species and 46 genera of insects from the Afrotropics. While the majority of his work was on the robber fly family (Asilidae), Jason also worked on hangingflies (Bittacidae) and ticks. He was also a prolific collector of many other insects, still kept in the collection of the KwaZulu-Natal Museum. 

Dr Jason Gilbert Hayden Londt

Jason’s fieldwork was extensively targeting the diverse habitats in South Africa: from the subtropical coast of KwaZulu-Natal, the grasslands in the Midlands around Pietermaritzburg – where the museum is based – and further north in the Highveld, to the higher elevations of the Drakensberg Mountains bordering Lesotho, and from the Succulent and Nama Karoo, to the diverse Fynbos habitats along the south-western coast of South Africa. Additional major fieldwork took place in Namibia, Kenya, Malawi, and to a lesser extent: Eswatini (Swaziland) and Cote d’Ivoire. In addition to utilising the collected material for taxonomic work, Jason also used his field trips to publish behavioural observations and prey selection of Asilidae species.

To celebrate Jason’s career achievements and his 80th birthday, African Invertebrates will be publishing a Festschrift in his honour in April 2023. We invite any submissions linked to Jason, new species descriptions, revisions of taxa he has worked on, or any work based on specimens collected by Jason.

This issue will be edited by Dr Torsten Dikow (Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, USA), Dr Kirstin Williams (KwaZulu-Natal Museum) and Dr John Midgley (KwaZulu-Natal Museum). 

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Submission deadline: 31 December 2022

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Find more about the upcoming Festschrift on the African Invertebrates’ journal website. 

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30-million-year-old Baltic amber reveals lacewing that looks like mantis

The insect, described as Mantispa? damzenogedanica, helped reveal important insights into the morphology of these fascinating insects and how it changed through history

Guest blog post by Viktor Baranov

Lacewings (Neuroptera) are mostly known for representatives such as green lacewings or antlions, which are distinguished by their appearance – large eyes and four long wings – but also by their predatory larvae, which play an important role as pest control agents in agriculture. But few non-specialists know that some lacewings can look a lot like praying mantises.

Mantispa? damzenogedanica, general overview. Photo by V. Baranov

Mantis lacewings (Mantispida) are among the most charismatic, though rather poorly known representatives of the true lacewings. They look like small- to medium-sized praying mantises. Mantis lacewing are 5-47 mm long, and all of them have prominent grasping (also called raptorial) legs. This superficial resemblance is due to the convergent evolution of the shape in true mantises and mantis lacewings. Convergent evolution is a process of organisms evolving similar traits, due to their adaptation to the similar conditions – i.e. hummingbirds and sunbirds live on different continents but look very similar due to their similar lifestyle. This type of evolution has led to the similar shape of the grasping legs, which act as a couple of snap traps for unsuspecting prey. 

Going back to the Cretaceous, Mantis lacewings have a long geological record. There are plenty of Mesozoic records of them and their relatives, such as thorny lacewings (Rachiberothidae) and beaded lacewings (Berothidae), totalling  105 recorded specimens. Curiously, there is a clear gap in mantis lacewings records from the Cainozoic.

Until recently, no adult mantis lacewings had been recorded from Baltic amber. In a single case, fossil parasitoid larvae of mantis lacewings were found attached to their host, a spider.

This changed last year, when a beautiful specimen of the mantis lacewing, almost 2 cm long, was brought to our attention by a private amber collector and esteemed supporter of palaeoentomology research – Jonas Damzen from Vilnus, Lithuania. The specimen was found at the Yantarny mine in Kaliningrad oblast, Russia.

By analysing the morphology of this beautiful specimen, we found out that it is closely related to the extant genus Mantispa. However, it was impossible to conclusively corroborate its affinity, because important characters such as rear wing venation and genitalia were obscured by so called “verlummung” – a white film, which covers many of the fossils in Baltic amber.

Morphospace plot showing changes in the diversity of raptorial appendages over geological time. Image credit J. Haug/ V. Baranov

So, to deal with this uncertainty, we designated this specimen as “probable Mantispa” (Mantispa?). In our research article published in the journal Fossil Record, we gave it the name Mantispa? damzenogedanica. The specific epithet is a combination of ‘Damzen’, honouring Jonas Damzen, who found, prepared, and made the specimen available, and ‘gedanicum’, relative to one of the Latin names for Gdańsk, Poland, where the specimen is housed in the Museum of Gdańsk.

Except for being an impressive, large, imposing insect fossil of the mantis lacewing, and the first one in Baltic amber at that, M.? damzenogedanica also present an intriguing question: why are so few mantis lacewings recorded from this fossil deposit, which is among the best-studied in the world?

Baltic amber deposits were formed in the mid-to-late Eocene epoch (38-33.9 MYA) in Northern Europe. Current consensus on the climate of the area at the time stands that it was not dissimilar to the south of the North American eastern seaboard, for example the Carolinas or Florida’s Panhandle: it was warm-temperate. Such climate is in fact perfect for extant mantis lacewings, so it is logical to suggest that unsuitable climate was not the main reason for the rarity of these animals in Baltic amber.

Analysing the diversity of the shape of mantis lacewings, we found a surprising trend – since the Cretaceous, the diversity in the shape of their legs has decreased. While the shape of the raptorial legs in the Cretaceous was characterised by eclectic, amazing diversity, later mantis lacewings have a rather uniform shape of raptorial legs.

We are not sure what may have caused this decrease. We think that drastic biotic changes after the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event (the mass extinction that killed the dinosaurs) may have led to the environment becoming less conductive to mantis lacewings, which in turn decreased their diversity. Thus, it is likely that the rarity of mantis lacewings is simply a reflection of the decline in their diversity and abundance after the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction. 

Younger amber deposits (i.e. Dominican amber), and, of course, extant fauna display significant species diversity, but the diversity of shape never recovered after the Cretaceous. This new mantis lacewing from Baltic amber offers us a rare glimpse into a time when, in the world after dinosaurs, lacewings got a little less diverse and charismatic.

Research article: Baranov V, Pérez-de la Fuente R, Engel MS, Hammel JU, Kiesmüller C, Hörnig MK, Pazinato PG, Stahlecker C, Haug C, Haug JT (2022) The first adult mantis lacewing from Baltic amber, with an evaluation of the post-Cretaceous loss of morphological diversity of raptorial appendages in Mantispidae. Fossil Record 25(1): 11-24. https://doi.org/10.3897/fr.25.80134

Image recognition to the rescue of natural history museums by enabling curators to identify specimens on the fly

New Research Idea, published in RIO Journal presents a promising machine-learning ecosystem to unite experts around the world and make up for lacking taxonomic expertise.

In their Research Idea, published in Research Ideas and Outcomes (RIO Journal), Swiss-Dutch research team present a promising machine-learning ecosystem to unite experts around the world and make up for lacking expert staff

Guest blog post by Luc Willemse, Senior collection manager at Naturalis Biodiversity Centre (Leiden, Netherlands)

Imagine the workday of a curator in a national natural history museum. Having spent several decades learning about a specific subgroup of grasshoppers, that person is now busy working on the identification and organisation of the holdings of the institution. To do this, the curator needs to study in detail a huge number of undescribed grasshoppers collected from all sorts of habitats around the world. 

The problem here, however, is that a curator at a smaller natural history institution – is usually responsible for all insects kept at the museum, ranging from butterflies to beetles, flies and so on. In total, we know of around 1 million described insect species worldwide. Meanwhile, another 3,000 are being added each year, while many more are redescribed, as a result of further study and new discoveries. Becoming a specialist for grasshoppers was already a laborious activity that took decades, how about knowing all insects of the world? That’s simply impossible. 

Then, how could we expect from one person to sort and update all collections at a museum: an activity that is the cornerstone of biodiversity research? A part of the solution, hiring and training additional staff, is costly and time-consuming, especially when we know that experts on certain species groups are already scarce on a global scale. 

We believe that automated image recognition holds the key to reliable and sustainable practises at natural history institutions. 

Today, image recognition tools integrated in mobile apps are already being used even by citizen scientists to identify plants and animals in the field. Based on an image taken by a smartphone, those tools identify specimens on the fly and estimate the accuracy of their results. What’s more is the fact that those identifications have proven to be almost as accurate as those done by humans. This gives us hope that we could help curators at museums worldwide take better and more timely care of the collections they are responsible for. 

However, specimen identification for the use of natural history institutions is still much more complex than the tools used in the field. After all, the information they store and should be able to provide is meant to serve as a knowledge hub for educational and reference purposes for present and future generations of researchers around the globe.

This is why we propose a sustainable system where images, knowledge, trained recognition models and tools are exchanged between institutes, and where an international collaboration between museums from all sizes is crucial. The aim is to have a system that will benefit the entire community of natural history collections in providing further access to their invaluable collections. 

We propose four elements to this system: 

  1. A central library of already trained image recognition models (algorithms) needs to be created. It will be openly accessible, so any other institute can profit from models trained by others.
Mock-up of a Central Library of Algorithms.
  1. A central library of datasets accessing images of collection specimens that have recently been identified by experts. This will provide an indispensable source of images for training new algorithms.
Mock-up of a Central Library of Datasets.
  1. A digital workbench that provides an easy-to-use interface for inexperienced users to customise the algorithms and datasets to the particular needs in their own collections. 
  2. As the entire system depends on international collaboration as well as sharing of algorithms and datasets, a user forum is essential to discuss issues, coordinate, evaluate, test or implement novel technologies.

How would this work on a daily basis for curators? We provide two examples of use cases.

First, let’s zoom in to a case where a curator needs to identify a box of insects, for example bush crickets, to a lower taxonomic level. Here, he/she would take an image of the box and split it into segments of individual specimens. Then, image recognition will identify the bush crickets to a lower taxonomic level. The result, which we present in the table below – will be used to update object-level registration or to physically rearrange specimens into more accurate boxes. This entire step can also be done by non-specialist staff. 

Mock-up of box with grasshoppers mentioned in the above table

Results of automated image recognition identify specimens to a lower taxonomic level.

Another example is to incorporate image recognition tools into digitisation processes that include imaging specimens. In this case, image recognition tools can be used on the fly to check or confirm the identifications and thus improve data quality.

Mock-up of an interface for automated taxon identification. 

Using image recognition tools to identify specimens in museum collections is likely to become common practice in the future. It is a technical tool that will enable the community to share available taxonomic expertise. 

Using image recognition tools creates the possibility to identify species groups for which there is very limited to none in-house expertise. Such practises would substantially reduce costs and time spent per treated item. 

Image recognition applications carry metadata like version numbers and/or datasets used for training. Additionally, such an approach would make identification more transparent than the one carried out by humans whose expertise is, by design, in no way standardised or transparent.

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Research publication:

Greeff M, Caspers M, Kalkman V, Willemse L, Sunderland BD, Bánki O, Hogeweg L (2022) Sharing taxonomic expertise between natural history collections using image recognition. Research Ideas and Outcomes 8: e79187. https://doi.org/10.3897/rio.8.e79187

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

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

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