Twenty-four new species of parasitic wasps were discovered in the cloud forests of Ecuador, and they all mummify caterpillars by eating them and sucking their vital juices from the inside.
All of the new wasp species belong to the genus Aleiodes, parasites of forest caterpillars. After she finds a particular kind of moth caterpillar, the female injects an egg into it. The larva feeds on the caterpillar and grows for a time, until eventually, the host caterpillar shrinks and mummifies. Then, the immature wasp turns its food supply into a home, making its cocoon inside the mummified remains. When it completes its development, the young wasp cuts an exit hole from the mummy and flies away to mate and continue the parasitic cycle.
They were all described by Eduardo Shimbori of Universidade Federal de São Carlos, Brazil, and Scott Shaw from the University of Wyoming in Laramie. Their team collected the specimens using various traps, nets, and aspirators at the Yanayacu Biological Station in Napo Province on the eastern Andes slopes of Ecuador.
The new parasitic wasps are about four to nine millimeters long, and they were named after artists, authors, and celebrities including: television hosts and satirists Jon Stewart (A. stewarti), Stephen Colbert (A. colberti), Jimmy Fallon (A. falloni), and Ellen DeGeneres (A. elleni), as well as Shakira, Ecuadorian artist Eduardo Kingman, American poet Robert Frost, and Dolores Cacuango, pioneer of indigenous rights in Ecuador. Shaw had already discovered nine species at the site and had previously named one after David Letterman. That brings the total Neotropical Aleiodes species count to 89.
"Killing and mummifying caterpillars may sound bad, but these are actually highly beneficial insects," Shaw says in a news release. "These wasps are helping to naturally control the populations of plant-feeding caterpillars, so they help to sustain the biodiversity of tropical forests."
A. shakirae causes its host caterpillar to bend and twist in an unusual way, which reminded the authors of belly-dancing. Pictured on the right is a caterpillar mummy made by the Shakira wasp. A. frosti emerges from the posterior radial opening in the mummy, which was recorded for the first time -- that reminded the authors of Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken.” To see if your favorite namesake has anything in common with the parasite, you can peruse the open access paper and check out the great pictures.
Not all of the wasps were named after famous people. Some were named after people or locations related to the project, while others have descriptive Latin roots such as “white cheek” for A. albigena, “white bracelet” for A. albiviria, “long horned” for A. longikeros, and “two stain” for A. bimaculatus and its two yellow spots. A. tzantza is named after the Shuar word for the ritual of reducing heads by a mummification process.
The new species are described in ZooKeys last week.
Images: Eduardo Shimbori CC-BY 4.0