From 1976 to 1994, Jason Londt was Assistant Director at the Natal Museum (now KwaZulu-Natal Museum) in South Africa, publisher of the African Invertebratesjournal. 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.
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.
While exploring the way alien species invade cities around the world, South African PhD student Ashlyn L. Padayachee (University of KwaZulu-Natal, UKZN) and her supervisors, Serban Proches (UKZN) and John Wilson (SANBI and Stellenbosch University) remember suddenly being stricken.
What they realised was that while cities were gradually starting to prepare for climate change, their responses to invasions were rather reactive. Even though management focused on widespread invasive species, which were currently having the most negative impacts on native biodiversity, the researchers noted that if those decision makers had only targeted the next highly damaging invaders ahead of their arrival, the associated costs would have greatly decreased.
Consequently, the team developed a methodology, based on three key aspects: priority species, points of first introduction and sites of naturalisation, in order to identify the most probable and concerning invasive species for Durban (eThekwini in KwaZulu Natal), a coastal city in South Africa. Furthermore, their work, published in the open-access journal Neobiota provides decision makers from around the world with a new tool, that is easy to use and adjustable to the specificity of different cities.
Firstly, the researchers identified cities with a similar climate to Durban and used existing alien species watch lists, environmental criteria and introduction pathways to identify species, which are not present in South Africa, but are considered of unacceptable risk of invasion. The team continued by figuring out which of those selected species are likely to have pathways facilitating their introduction to the city and developed a climatic suitability model for each. Finally, the scientists linked the climate and pathway information, so that they could identify sites within Durban to be considered as a focus for the contingency planning for particular species.
As a result, the authors identified three alien species as priorities for Durban: Alligator weed (Alternanthera philoxeroides), American bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus) and the red imported fire ant (Solenopsis invicta).
In terms of points of introductions, the data highlighted the Durban Harbour, especially for the red imported fire ant. Plant nurseries and garden centres, as well as pet and aquarium shops were also identified as important sites for the three studied species. Additionally, suitable habitats located near the points of introduction, such as river systems and built infrastructure, were found in need of monitoring.
In conclusion, the implementation of prioritisation schemes to consider the three aspects (species, pathways, and sites) allows managers to focus resources on those species which pose a greater risk of invasion and impact.
“This will only ever be one part of a broad range of biosecurity efforts, but it is one where, we believe, we can be prepared,” comment the authors.
Padayachee AL, Proches S, Wilson JRU (2019) Prioritising potential incursions for contingency planning: pathways, species, and sites in Durban (eThekwini), South Africa as an example. NeoBiota 47: 1-21. https://doi.org/10.3897/neobiota.47.31959
A study of parasitic crustaceans attaching themselves inside the branchial cavities (the gills) of their fish hosts was recently conducted in order to reveal potentially unrecognised diversity of the genus Elthusa in South Africa.
While there had only been one species known from the country, a new article published in the open-access journal ZooKeys adds another three to the list.
For one of them, the research team from North-West University (South Africa): Serita van der Wal, Prof Nico Smit and Dr Kerry Hadfield, chose the name of the fictional character Xena, the warrior princess. The reason was that the females appeared particularly tough with their characteristic elongated and ovoid bodies. Additionally, the holotype (the first specimen used for the identification and description of the previously unknown species) is an egg-carrying female.
Formally recognised as Elthusa xena, this new to science species is so far only known from the mouth of the Orange River, Alexander Bay, South Africa (Atlantic Ocean). It is also the only Elthusa species known to parasitise the intertidal Super klipfish (Clinus supercilious). In fact, this is the first time an Elthusa species has been recorded from any klipfish (genus Clinus).
van der Wal S, Smit NJ, Hadfield KA (2019) Review of the fish parasitic genus Elthusa Schioedte & Meinert, 1884 (Crustacea, Isopoda, Cymothoidae) from South Africa, including the description of three new species. ZooKeys 841: 1-37. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.841.32364
‘Green-eyed hermit crab’ is the common name for a new species recently discovered off the West Coast of South Africa. Apart from its magnetic stare, however, there is a number of characteristic morphological traits and an unusual home preference that all make the crustacean unique.
The Green-eyed hermit crab measures merely 70 mm in length and sports a coloration of mottled orange nuanced with cream to white. Among its distinct traits is the significant sexual dimorphism, where the males grow much larger right chelipeds in comparison to females.
Much like other hermit crabs in its family (Parapaguridae), the little crustacean does not use the shells of other molluscs to shelter its vulnerable body, but rather finds a home in the soft, polypy masses built from sand and material created by sea anemones which go on to live on the backs of these crabs in an amazing symbiosis.
“So, when you hold it [the hermit crab], it’s just organic material glued together with some sand,” explains Jannes in the UCT’s announcement about their discovery.
“Even more curiously, parapagurids start off in the usual way, occupying a tiny gastropod shell. But these eventually become deposited within this non-calcified ‘amalgam’ created by the anemones. As the hermit crab grows, its live ‘shell’, or carcinoecia, grows with it.”
The new species was discovered during a three-week survey back in 2013, conducted by the Department of Forestry and Fisheries and the South African Environmental Observation Network in the shallower deep waters (199 m to 277 m) off the West Coast of South Africa. Lara was on board one of the vessels when an unusual green-eyed crab turned up among the numerous specimens collected in one of the trawls. It was at that moment that she noticed that there was something peculiar about it and sent it for identification.
Restricted to a surprisingly small area for no obvious reason, the new species might be just bringing up some very important conservation messages.
“The area isn’t noticeably biologically or oceanographically distinct, but more detailed sampling from the area will tell us more about the habitat conditions. Future studies need to take this into account and give the area more research attention. If there’s something unusual about the site, you’d want to be careful, especially with mining operations along the West Coast,” says Jannes.
“Incidents like these are flags for future protection. The bottom line is we know so little about these offshore habitats from an ecological point of view. And if you’re planning for a marine protected area, you have to know what it is you’re protecting in that area.”
Landschoff J, Lemaitre R (2017) Differentiation of three common deep-water hermit crabs (Crustacea, Decapoda, Anomura, Parapaguridae) from the South African demersal abundance surveys, including the description of a new species of Paragiopagurus Lemaitre, 1996. ZooKeys676: 21-45. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.676.12987
Along with urban and agricultural encroachment and pollution mitigation, managing invasive alien species is a key intervention needed to protect biodiversity. Unfortunately, on a global scale there are not enough funds to meet the requirements for effective conservation everywhere, which means that scarce funds need to be allocated where they can be used most efficiently.
In order to find out whether the historical measures undertaken at the Kruger National Park in South Africa have been effective and optimised, researchers led by Prof. Brian W. van Wilgen of Stellenbosch University assessed the invasive alien plant control operations in the protected area over several decades. Their findings and recommendations are published in the open access journal Neobiota.
While the first invasive alien plants in the national park, which stretches over two million hectares, were recorded back in 1937, it was not until the mid-1950s that attempts at controlling them began. By the end of the century, the invasive alien plant control program had expanded substantially.
However, the scientists found out that despite several invasive alien species having been effectively managed, the overall control effort was characterised by several shortcomings, including inadequate goal-setting and planning, the lack of a sound basis on which to apportion funds, and the absence of any monitoring of control effectiveness.
Furthermore, the researchers report that over one third (40%) of the funding has been spent on species of lower concern. Some of these funds have been allocated so that additional employment could be created onsite, or because of a lack of clear evidence about the impact of certain species.
As a result of their observations, the team concludes three major strategies when navigating invasive alien species control operations.
Firstly, a thorough assessment of the impact of individual species needs to be carried out prior to allocating substantial funds. On the other hand, in case of a new invasion, management needs to be undertaken immediately before any further spread of the population and the subsequent rise in control costs. Monitoring and assessments have to be performed regularly in order to identify any new threats that could potentially be in need of prioritisation over others.
The authors also point out that re-allocating current funds to species of greater concern is needed for species that cannot be managed via less expensive solutions such as biological control. Taking care of alien plant populations living outside of the park, but in close proximity, is also crucial for the prevention of re-invasions of already cleared areas.
van Wilgen BW, Fill JM, Govender N, Foxcroft LC (2017) An assessment of the evolution, costs and effectiveness of alien plant control operations in Kruger National Park, South Africa. NeoBiota 35: 35-59. https://doi.org/10.3897/neobiota.35.12391
Species that live exclusively in a single region are at a particular risk of extinction. However, for them to be protected, thorough assessments of the environmental impacts need to be performed.
There are more than 100 earthworm species living in the soil and dead wood of KwaZulu-Natal Province, South Africa. Most of them live exclusively in small regions in the province, which makes them extremely vulnerable.
To scientists Dr Adrian J. Armstrong, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, and Ms Thembeka Nxele, KwaZulu-Natal Museum, the problem is twofold. Firstly, they note that the expression “out of sight, out of mind” is very suitable for the case of the endemic earthworms in South Africa. Secondly, they point out that the lack of common names for these species is a stumbling block that hinders their inclusion in conservation assessments.
As a result, the researchers try to rectify this situation by assigning standardised English names to the endemic earthworms in KwaZulu-Natal. Their article is published in the open access journal African Invertebrates.
Scientific names are often intractable to non-specialists, and the lack of common names leaves environmental assessors in the dark when they need to figure out which earthworms may occur at a development site. In the meantime, it has been found that about 50% of the native vegetation in KwaZulu-Natal has already been removed as a result of infrastructure construction and the figure is rising.
“The indigenous earthworms generally don’t survive in developed areas,” say the authors.
For instance, the informal use of an English name (green giant wrinkled earthworm) for the species Microchaetus papillatus, has facilitated the inclusion of this species in environmental impact assessments in KwaZulu-Natal.
While the green giant wrinkled earthworm does occur in a relatively large and rapidly developing area in KwaZulu-Natal, other species live in smaller areas that have been urbanised even more.
The extinction of these earthworms is not only undesirable from the point of view of biodiversity advocates – the role of this group of soil organisms is impossible to replace fully with non-native earthworms. For example, some of the large indigenous earthworms (more than 1 m in length) burrow much deeper than the non-native species, thereby enriching and aerating the soil at greater depth.
The authors are hopeful that by giving the indigenous earthworms in KwaZulu-Natal common names, the threatened and endemic species will be conserved through inclusion in environmental impact assessments. Furthermore, they believe that earthworms could draw attention to the areas where they occur whenever a choice for new protected areas is to be made.
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.
The 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.
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
iSimangaliso Wetland Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the sub-tropical north-eastern corner of South Africa has become famous for its birdlife, crocodiles and hippopotamuses that frolic in the warm estuarine waters of Lake St Lucia. However, there’s more to the park than the “big and hairy”, according to aquatic ecologist Prof Renzo Perissinotto at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) in Port Elizabeth, whose research is published in the open access journal ZooKeys.
“Although we have spent several decades focusing on life in the estuary, we only recently came to realise that much of the wealth of biodiversity in the park exists in the small freshwater ponds that are adjacent to, but disconnected from, the main lake,” he says.
The St Lucia lake itself is generally brackish and is located on a large sandy expanse known as the Maputaland coastal plain. Dotted across the landscape of this coastal foreland are numerous temporary freshwater ponds, seeps and small streams that are disconnected from the brackish lake body.
A team of self-proclaimed “beetle nerds”, led by Prof Perissinotto, got together from NMMU and Plymouth University (UK) and uncovered more species of water beetles in these tiny water bodies than is known for any other similar-sized region in southern Africa.
The beetle collection trips were done over a 16-month period and revealed 68 species of predaceous water beetles alone, termed more formally as the “Hydradephaga”. The iSimangaliso Wetland Park houses approximately 20% of the total number of known species for this beetle group in the whole of southern Africa. Of the species collected during their expeditions, five have never been recorded in South Africa before, highlighting our poor understanding of aquatic insect distributions in this part of the world.
Most of the species collected (almost 80%) belonged to the family Dytiscidae, more commonly known as “diving beetles” due to their lifestyle that involves coming up for air and immediately diving back down to the depths to carry on hunting unsuspecting prey, which can be as large as small fish and amphibians.
Prof Perissinotto and his NMMU colleague Dr Matthew Bird, together with water beetle specialist Prof David Bilton (Plymouth University), collected specimens ranging from 1 mm to almost 5 cm in length (the tadpole eaters). According to Prof Bilton, “Irrespective of size, these water beetles are a crucial component of the iSimangaliso ecosystem in that they are the primary predators in these temporary wetlands, which generally lack fish. Their abundance and diversity can be used to gauge the overall health of wetland ecosystems as they are sensitive to pollution, for instance”.
Perissinotto R, Bird MS, Bilton DT (2016) Predaceous water beetles (Coleoptera, Hydradephaga) of the Lake St Lucia system, South Africa: biodiversity, community ecology and conservation implications. ZooKeys 595: 85-135. doi: 10.3897/zookeys.595.8614
Not only did an international research team discover two new endoparasitic wasp species in South Africa and India, and significantly expanded their genera’s distributional range, but they also gave a celebrity name to a special one of them.
While thinking of a name for the new wasp, Dr Buntika A. Butcher, Chulalongkorn University, Thailand, recalled her long hours of studying in her laboratory right under the poster of her favourite film actor. This is how a parasitic wasp from South Africa was named after Hollywood star Brad Pitt. The researchers have published their findings in the open access journal ZooKeys.
The new wasp species, called Conobregma bradpitti, belongs to a large worldwide group of wasps parasitising in moth or butterfly caterpillars. These wasps lay their eggs into a host, which once parasitised starts hardening. Thus, the wasp cocoon can safely develop and later emerge from the ‘mummified’ larva. Despite their macabre behaviour, many of these wasp species are considered valuable in agriculture because of their potential as biological control.
Brad Pitt’s flying namesake is a tiny creature measuring less than 2 mm. Its body is deep brown, nearly black in colour, while its head, antennae and legs are brown-yellow. The wings stand out with their much brighter shades.
Interestingly, the wasp with celebrity name unites two, until now, doubtful genera. Being very similar, they had already been noted to have only four diagnostic features that set them apart. However, C. bradpitti shared two of those with each. Thus, the species prompted the solution of the taxonomic problem and, as a result, the two were synonymised.
In their paper, the authors from Chulalongkorn University, Thailand and the University of Calicut, India, also describe another new species of parasitic wasp. It is the first from its subtribe spotted in the whole of India, while its closest ‘relative’ lives in Nepal.
Butcher BA, Quicke DLJ, Shreevihar S, Ranjith AP (2016) Major range extensions for two genera of the parasitoid subtribe Facitorina, with a new generic synonymy (Braconidae, Rogadinae, Yeliconini). ZooKeys 584: 109-120. doi: 10.3897/zookeys.584.7815
South Africa’s mountains are essential to the economic well-being of the country, providing many goods and services essential for social and economic prosperity. However, the biodiversity value of these mountains is still poorly understood. This is exemplified by the large number of plant species still only known from one or two collections made well over a century ago.
The Great Escarpment Biodiversity Research Programme, led by Prof. Nigel Barker, University of Pretoria, has been systematically documenting plant diversity and endemism along much of the Great Escarpment – southern Africa’s principal mountain system.
“This ‘un-sexy’ foot-slogging research has yielded a number of valuable discoveries and rediscoveries, highlighting the biodiversity value of these mountains,” points lead author Dr Ralph Clark, Rhodes University, South Aftica.
One of these rediscoveries is a plant last seen only by one more person: Mrs Elizabeth Barber, one of South Africa’s finest women botanists of the 19th century. Mrs Barber has been a regular correspondent with Charles Darwin and has provided material of South African plants to numerous institutions in Europe.
“Her discovery – Lotononis harveyi, also known under the common name ‘Mrs Barber’s Beauty’ in her honour, was published in 1862, but unfortunately, as her specimen did not include a date, we do not know the actual year in which she discovered it,” he explains. “What we do know, is that it mysteriously disappeared for at least 147 years, despite attempts to relocate it.”
In 2009, Dr Ralph Clark undertook an extensive collecting trip to the Great Winterberg, where he accidently stumbled across a flowering specimen of ‘Mrs Barber’s Beauty’. It was only in 2014, however, that the plant was properly recognised for what it was, and a second trip was quickly planned.
The results of the second trip included the first photographs and ecological records of this apparently scarce species. Dr Clark’s results have been published in the open access journal PhytoKeys.
“There are currently only six known individuals of this species. The main limiting factors appear to be fire and grazing, the plants only occurring where these two prominent ecological actors have been excluded for some time,” notes Dr Clark.
“However, with much of these mountains still poorly explored by biodiversity scientists, it is possible that additional individuals will come to light. For now the species will be regarded as Critically Endangered.”
Clark VR, Bentley J, Dold AP, Zikishe V, Barker NP (2016) The rediscovery of the Great Winterberg endemic Lotononis harveyi B.-E.van Wyk after 147 years, and notes on the poorly known Amathole endemic Macowania revolutaOliv. (southern Great Escarpment, South Africa). PhytoKeys 62: 1-13. doi: 10.3897/phytokeys.62.8348