MSU professor, daughter uncover new insect species
MURRAY, Ky. (AP) — What’s it like to discover a new species of insect in your own yard?
Dr. Laura Sullivan-Beckers, an assistant professor at Murray State University, learned that firsthand after encountering some treehoppers in the summer of 2016, when her daughter Sylvie Beckers, then 2, accidentally overwatered a flowerbed at their Murray home.
It turned out they were an unknown species of the insect, leaving the zoology, ornithology and human anatomy professor thrilled and “so excited.” She even named it Hebetica sylviae after her daughter, who is now 5.
“We found the treehopper years ago,” she said. “It took a long time just to figure out whether or not it was a new species or if it was one that had just migrated north or gotten displaced. There are a bunch of treehoppers in the same genus and the same subfamily that look very similar, so if you just saw one . . . (you’d think) ‘Oh, well yeah. It’s another one of those.’”
Sullivan-Beckers studied treehoppers as a doctoral student and describes this particular treehopper as a small insect, about the size of a pea, that looks like it’s wearing a giant, green bicycle helmet on its head. It’s part of a group known as the Raindrop treehoppers.
Treehoppers don’t belong in the soil, so when dead ones floated in the overwatered flowerbed, it caught her attention. Sullivan-Beckers went to investigate and the mother-daughter pair collected thousands of treehoppers over the summer, including 72 of the new species, according to the university.
“Usually, treehoppers live on plants and trees and grasses,” Sullivan-Beckers said. “This one does, too. We suspect that it’s at the top of a very tall Pin Oak tree that was near my flowerbed.”
She determined that nearby wasps were stinging the treehoppers, creating tunnels in the flowerbed and depositing them as food for the wasps’ offspring, which led to their discovery.
Sullivan-Beckers contacted her Ph.D adviser, Rex Cocroft at the University of Missouri, about the insects and later sent samples to a U.S. Department of Agriculture specialist in Washington, D.C., who performed “careful” morphological measurements on the species, mostly on veins inside of the wing, before the discovery was confirmed.
“The pattern of these veins is species specific and helps taxonomists distinguish them,” Sullivan-Beckers said. “It’s this tiny little detail to us, but they distinguish species. He made all those measurements and he also got specimens from insect collections from all over the world, so we used specimens from a museum in London and Brazil, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, as well as Washington, D.C.”
She and her USDA collaborator, research entomologist Dr. Stuart McKamey, will publish the species description in the peer-reviewed scientific journal, “Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington” in July.
Dr. Michael Flinn, professor and interim chairman of Biological Sciences at Murray State, called the insect discovery “fantastic” and said it’s good exposure for the department and university.
“The story of the discovery highlights several important aspects: the fine balance between the keen eyes of a scientist, the fact that ‘we’ as scientists are real people that balance life just like everyone else and that the mysteries of science are endless,” Flinn said. “Very few people get the opportunity to name something undiscovered, much less name it in honor of your child. How cool is that?”
What’s next for Hebetica sylviae?
Sullivan-Beckers needs help to find the treehoppers alive before any wasps can get to them. “I need somebody to come down here with a cherry picker to get me up at the top of that tree, so I can find my bugs alive,” she said.
“I’ve only ever seen these dead. For the last few years, I’ve really tried to find them alive. But they’re — I’m sure — at the very, very tip top of a very large tree.”
Information from: The Paducah Sun, http://www.paducahsun.com