Tracing the ancestry of dung beetles

One of the largest and most important groups of dung beetles in the world evolved from a single common ancestor and relationships among the various lineages are now known, according to new research by an entomologist from Western Kentucky University.

The study by Dr T. Keith Philips, recently published in the open access journal ZooKeys, provides important insights into the evolution and diversity of these dung beetles, which make up about half of the world’s dung beetle fauna.

The two tribes studied, the onthophagines and oniticellines, evolved from a single common ancestor and are found worldwide, except for Antarctica. These dung beetles make up the vast majority of species and dung beetle biomass in many ecosystems, feeding on mammal dung.

Dung beetles are well known to many people because many species are colorful and active in the daytime. Additionally, many taxa have unusual behaviors, such as making and rolling balls of dung away from a dung pile. Often thought of as nature’s garbage collectors, the important ecosystem service offered by dung beetle helps recycle nutrients, reduces parasites, and can even help seeds germinate.

While the two tribes studied do not have species that create balls, they instead have evolved many other diverse behaviors. This includes species that do not feed on dung but specialize on fungi, carrion, and dead millipedes. Many species that evolved from the same common ancestor even live in close association with termites and ants, where they might be feeding on nest debris.

“This is one of the most important groups of dung beetles that finally has a hypothesis on how they evolved and diversified on earth,” Philips notes. “The evolutionary scenario can now be tested and refined in the future with more data.” Although relatively well known, this group still may have as many as 1,000 undiscovered species left for scientists to document.

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Original source:

Philips TK (2016) Phylogeny of the Oniticellini and Onthophagini dung beetles (Scarabaeidae, Scarabaeinae) from morphological evidence. ZooKeys 579: 9-57. doi: 10.3897/zookeys.579.6183.

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

Two brand new dung beetle species from montane grazing sites and forests in Mexico

While carrying out a biodiversity study, a Mexican-Italian research team discovered three new dung beetle species in montane forests disturbed by livestock grazing. Mexico has been a mecca for naturalists, and its dung beetle species are among the best known in the world. This is why the discovery of new species there is noteworthy. The present study, published in the open-access journal ZooKeys, describes two of them and highlights the need to further explore the biodiversity of disturbed ecosystems.

Mexico is a country that holds a vast number of creatures and ecosystems. There is in fact a fascinating phenomenon: tropical forests that have close affinities with South America co-occurring with temperate and arid areas shared with North America. Thus, Mexico has been particularly attractive to explorers ever since the 19th century.

A group of animals that has woken up a special interest for studies in Mexico is the so-called ‘dung beetles’. As their name suggests, dung beetles are insects that feed mainly on mammal faeces.

For decades, an international research team, led by Dr Gonzalo Halffter, has studied dung beetles across the world, especially in Mexico. As a consequence, the Mexican species are some of the best-known. However, Dr Halffter and his team are not interested exclusively in dung beetles, but also in evolutive phenomena, the effects of land-use change, ecosystems modification by human activities, and conservation biology. Such concerns seem to be of particular importance now that the terrestrial ecosystems in Mexico have been severely destroyed and disturbed by people.

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Livestock is one of the major drivers of biodiversity loss worldwide, which makes the present discovery particularly impressive. With at least 58% of the area of Mexico occupied with livestock farming, dung beetles are essential in cleaning up. While studying their diversity at conserved forests and cattle grazing sites across the mountains of Mexico, the researchers found some new species of dung beetles.

The first to discover these new dung beetles was Victor Moctezuma, a student of Dr Gonzalo’s at the Instituto de Ecología of Mexico.

“I was carrying out sampling for my Masters Degree studies, but I had no idea that new dung beetles could be found in a forest that is disturbed by human activities, such as livestock grazing and land-use change,” recalls Moctezuma. “So I was really surprised when I discovered three dung beetle species.” One of these species has already been published.

Apart from the two new dung beetles, formally called Onthophagus clavijeroi and Onthophagus martinpierai, the present paper also provides theories about the current distributions of these insects across the Mexican mountains and their putative evolutive relationships. As a whole, the study highlights the importance of disturbed forest for species discovery and conservation.

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Original source:

Moctezuma V, Rossini M, Zunino M, Halffter G (2016) A contribution to the knowledge of the mountain entomofauna of Mexico with a description of two new species of Onthophagus latreille, 1802 (Coleoptera, Scarabaeidae, Scarabaeinae). ZooKeys 572: 23-50. doi:10.3897/zookeys.572.6763

The lizard of consistency: New iguana species which sticks to its colors found in Chile

During a field trip at 3000 metres above sea level, a group of scientists, led by Jaime Troncoso-Palacios, Universidad de Chile, discovered a new endemic iguana species, in the mountains of central Chile, scientists. Noticeably different in size and scalation, compared to the rest of the local lizards, what initially grabbed the biologists’ attention was its colouration. Not only was it unlike the already described ones, but also appeared surprisingly consistent within the collected individuals, even regardless of their sex. Eventually, it was this peculiar uniformity that determined the lizard’s name L. uniformis. The study is published in the open-access journal ZooKeys.

The researchers found the lizards quite abundant in the area, which facilitated their observations and estimations. Apart from a thorough description of the new iguana along with its comparisons to its related species, the present paper also provides an in-depth discussion about the placement of the new taxon, which had been confused with other species in the past.

While most of the other lizards from the area and its surroundings often vary greatly in colouration and pattern between populations and sexes, such thing is not present in the new species. Both males and females from the observed collection have their bodies’ upper side in brown, varying from dark on the head, through coppery on the back and light brown on the tail. The down side of the body is mainly yellowish, while the belly – whitish. The only variables the scientists have noticed in their specimens are slight differences in the shade with two females demonstrating unusual olive hues on their snouts. These differences in morphology were also strongly supported by the molecular phylogeny through the analysis of mitochondrial DNA, which was performed by Dr. Alvaro A. Elorza, from Universidad Andres Bello.

Accustomed to life in highland rocky habitats with scarce greenery, these lizards spend their active hours, estimated to take place between 09:00 h and 18:00 h hidden under stones. However, they might not be too hard to find due to their size of about 8.5 cm for the males and their abundance in the studied area. The females are more slender and measure 7 cm in length on average.

Having caught one of their specimens while holding a yellow flower in its mouth, the scientists conducted further examination of the stomach contents of the studied individuals and concluded that the species is omnivorous, feeding mainly on plants as well as insects and roundworms.

In conclusion, the researchers showed that there is still a huge gap in the knowledge of the close relatives of the newly described species and their “challenging taxonomy”.

 

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Original source:

Troncoso-Palacios J, Elorza AA, Puas GI, Alfaro-Pardo E (2016) A new species of Liolaemusrelated to L. nigroviridis from the Andean highlands of Central Chile (Iguania, Liolaemidae).ZooKeys 555: 91-114. doi: 10.3897/zookeys.555.6011

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

 

First find of its kind in more than 3 decades: The adorable Olinguito

Observed in the wild, tucked away in museum collections, and even exhibited in zoos around the world; there is one mysterious creature that has been a victim of mistaken identity for more than 100 years.

Observed in the wild, tucked away in museum collections, and even exhibited in zoos around the world; there is one mysterious creature that has been a victim of mistaken identity for more than 100 years.

A team of Smithsonian scientists, however, uncovered overlooked museum specimens of this remarkable animal, which took them on a journey from museum cabinets in Chicago to cloud forests in South America to genetics labs in Washington, D.C. The result: the olinguito (Bassaricyon neblina); the first carnivore species to be discovered in the Western Hemisphere in 35 years.

The team’s discovery is published in the Aug. 15 issue of the open-access scholarly journal ZooKeys.

The olinguito (oh-lin-GHEE-toe) looks like a cross between a house cat and a teddy bear. It is actually the latest scientifically documented member of the family Procyonidae, which it shares with raccoons, coatis, kinkajous and olingos. The 2-pound olinguito, with its large eyes and woolly orange-brown fur, is native to the cloud forests of Colombia and Ecuador, as its scientific name, “neblina” (Spanish for “fog”), hints.

In addition to being the latest described member of its family, another distinction the olinguito holds is that it is the newest species in the order Carnivora; an incredibly rare discovery in the 21st century.

“The discovery of the olinguito shows us that the world is not yet completely explored, its most basic secrets not yet revealed. If new carnivores can still be found, what other surprises await us? So many of the world’s species are not yet known to science. Documenting them is the first step toward understanding the full richness and diversity of life on Earth,”

said Kristofer Helgen, curator of mammals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and leader of the team reporting the new discovery.

Discovering a new species of carnivore, however, does not happen overnight. This one took a decade, and was not the project’s original goal; completing the first comprehensive study of olingos, several species of tree-living carnivores in the genus Bassaricyon, was.

Helgen’s team wanted to understand how many olingo species should be recognized and how these species are distributed; issues that had long been unclear to scientists. Unexpectedly, the team’s close examination of more than 95 percent of the world’s olingo specimens in museums, along with DNA testing and the review of historic field data, revealed existence of the olinguito, a previously undescribed species.

The first clue came to Helgen from the olinguito’s teeth and skull, which were smaller and differently shaped than those of olingos. Examining museum skins revealed that this new species was also smaller overall with a longer and denser coat; field records showed that it occurred in a unique area of the northern Andes Mountains at 5,000 to 9,000 feet above sea level; elevations much higher than the known species of olingo. This information, however, was coming from overlooked olinguito specimens collected in the early 20th century. The question Helgen and his team wanted to answer next was: Does the olinguito still exist in the wild?

To answer that question, Helgen called on Roland Kays, director of the Biodiversity and Earth Observation Lab at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, to help organize a field expedition.

The team had a lucky break that started with a camcorder video. With confirmation of the olinguito’s existence via a few seconds of grainy video shot by their colleague Miguel Pinto, a zoologist in Ecuador, Helgen and Kays set off on a three-week expedition to find the animal themselves. Working with Pinto, they found olinguitos in a forest on the western slopes of the Andes, and spent their days documenting what they could about the animal&;its characteristics and its forest home. Because the olinguito was new to science, it was imperative for the scientists to record every aspect of the animal. They learned that the olinguito is mostly active at night, is mainly a fruit eater, rarely comes out of the trees and has one baby at a time.

In addition to body features and behavior, the team made special note of the olinguito’s cloud forest Andean habitat, which is under heavy pressure of human development. The team estimated that 42 percent of historic olinguito habitat has already been converted to agriculture or urban areas.

“The cloud forests of the Andes are a world unto themselves, filled with many species found nowhere else, many of them threatened or endangered. We hope that the olinguito can serve as an ambassador species for the cloud forests of Ecuador and Colombia, to bring the world’s attention to these critical habitats,”

Helgen said.

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Original Source:

Helgen KM, Pinto CM, Kays R, Helgen LE, Tsuchiya MTN, Quinn A, Wilson DE, Maldonado JE (2013) Taxonomic revision of the olingos (Bassaricyon), with description of a new species, the Olinguito. ZooKeys 324: 1. doi: 10.3897/zookeys.324.5827

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