Plants and Animals

Recently-Discovered Wasp Species Named For Harry Potter Creature

May 6, 2014 | by Lisa Winter

Photo credit: Ohl et al., 2014

If you are familiar with the Harry Potter series, you probably remember the dementors: dark, ghost-like beings that suck every positive feeling away leaving nothing but an empty shell. These awful creatures have now made the transition from fantasy to scientific literature, as they are now the namesake of a newly discovered species of cockroach wasp. The name Ampulex dementor  was chosen through public voting and has been described by Stefanie Krause and her team at the Natural History Museum in Berlin. The paper has been published in PLOS ONE.

The wasp, native to Thailand, has bright red and black coloring. It is one of over 200 species of wasp which reproduces by way of a host incubator and this species chooses cockroaches. The female lands on top of a cockroach and using its stinger to inject neurotoxins directly into the roach’s head. The cockroach immediately takes on a zombie-like obedient state, following the wasp back to her burrow. There, she lays her egg inside the cockroach. The roach incubates the egg for a few days until it hatches. The larva then feeds on the roach until it is old enough to go off on its own. 

With a reproduction strategy like that, it is no wonder that A. dementor was chosen by museum visitors. Here were the options for the voters, as written in the paper:

A. dementor: “The species name refers to the dementors, which are fictional characters appearing in Harry Potter books. Dementors are magical beings, which can consume a person’s soul, leaving their victims as an empty but functional body without personality or emotions. The name is an allusion to the docility of the paralyzed cockroach.”

A. mon: “The Mon people are one of the earliest known ethnic groups in Thailand. The name is an allusion to the geographic origin of the wasp from Thailand.”

A. bicolor: “Derived from the Latin bi = two and color = color; an allusion to the distinctive, black-red coloration of the wasp.”

A. plagiator: “The new species is an ant-mimic: It tries to imitate ants in its general appearance as well as in its way of moving. One can say that the wasp is a plagiarist of the ant, and who is not reminded of current plagiarisms …?”

The researchers note that some 18,000 species are described each year. Researchers often choose to name new species after sponsors or other people who contributed to the study, but having the public weigh in creates a bond between the voters and the new species, which might boost interest in getting the public to care about conservation status.

Do the tactics of this wasp sound familiar? Many other species of wasp use other insects to incubate/feed their young. We have already introduced you to some which use tarantulas or caterpillars. Also, this isn’t the only creature with a name derived from pop culture. The science of naming organisms has been previously discussed on IFLScience: once with genes and once with organisms

[Hat tip: Shreya Dasgupta, Mongabay]

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