Sunday 1 June 2014

A new species of Cockroach Wasp from Thailand.

Cockroach Wasps (Ampulicidae) are a group of Digger Wasps (Aculeata) which specialize in the hunting of Cockroach prey. Some of these Wasps are large conspicuous Insects with metallic colourings, others are smaller and duller with Ant-mimicking colouration. Cockroach Wasps are largely ground hunters, they have long legs to chase and leap on their prey, rather than hunting on the wing. They subdue their prey by stinging them; however this sting appears to render the Cockroach helpless rather than paralyzing it, the stung Cockroach allowing itself to be led meekly by one antennae to the Wasps nest, where the Wasp lays an egg within the living Cockroach’s body and buries it to be consumed by the Wasp larvae.

In a paper published in the journal PLoS One on 22 April 2014, Michael Ohl, Volker Lohrmann, Laura Breitkreuz, Lukas Kirschey and Stefanie Krause of the Museum für Naturkunde at the Leibniz-Institut für Evolutions- und Biodiversitätsforschung, describe a new species of Cockroach Wasp in the genus Ampulex from the Khâo Kho National Park in Phetchabun Province, Thailand.

The new Wasp’s name was chosen by popular ballot as part of a citizen science project at the Museum für Naturkunde, itself part of a wider ‘Long Night of the Museums’ in Berlin, designed to increase public awareness of and involvement in museum projects. 

Four potential specific names were chosen for the new Wasp and placed on ballot papers available on request to followers of the museum on Facebook or Twitter. These were Ampulex bicolor, meaning ‘two coloured’, a reference to the Wasp’s colouration; Ampulex mon, a reference to the ancient Mon people of Thailand (ancient peoples have long been used as proxies for places in taxonomy, as classically trained eighteenth and nineteenth century taxonomists sought names from associated with places from Roman or Greek literature); Ampulex dementor, a reference to the Dementors or Soul-suckers of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, which guarded the wizard-prison of Azkerban, and which sucked all happiness and hope from their victims, a method thought similar to the attacks of Cockroach Wasps on Cockroaches, which appear to strip the Cockroaches of any will to escape; and Ampulex plagiator, meaning ‘plagiarist’ a reference to the Wasp’s Ant-mimicking behaviour.

On the night of the event 272 of the 300 ballot papers issued returned, with Ampulex dementor gaining 105 votes, ahead of Ampulex plagiator (90), Ampulex bicolor (41) and Ampulex mon (36). The new Wasp was therefore named Ampulex dementor, or the Soul-sucking Cockroach Wasp.

Ampulex dementor is a 9.6-10.9 mm red and black Ant-mimicking Cockroach Wasp with clouded forewings and long legs adapted to running and jumping behaviour. The species is described from two female specimens captured in a pit trap in mixed deciduous forest at an altitude of 524 m within the Khâo Kho National Park in Phetchabun Province, Thailand, by S. Chachumnan & S. Singtong of the Queen Sirikit Botanic Garden in Chiang Mai.

Ampulex dementor, the Soul-sucking Cockroach Wasp, in ventral view. B. Schurian in Ohl et al. (2014).

Ohl et al. deem their public engagement project to have been a success due to the high proportion of ballots returned, though they note that members of the public willing to sign up for a night-time event at a natural history museum may be considerably more engaged with the science of taxonomy than the general population to start with. 

They could find no similar project where members of the public had been asked to participate in formal taxonomic naming, though they did not a previous project in which The Guardian newspaper, Natural England and the Oxford University Museum of Natural History were asked to submit common English names for the endangered click-beetle, Megapenthes lugens, which were then subjected to a panel of expert judges, resulting in the name ‘Queen’s Executioner Beetle’ being chosen. This project resulted in over 3000 names being submitted, though it was largely an exercise in raising public awareness of a conservation issue rather than taxonomy.

Megapenthes lugens, the Queen’s Executioner Beetle. Stanislav Krejčik/Meloidae.

Ohl et al. also noted the 2005 project in which the right to name a new species of Titi Monkey discovered in the Madidi National Park in Bolivia was auctioned online, resulting in the Monkey gaining the name Callicebus aureipalatii, the Golden Palace Titi Monkey, after a successful US$650 000 bid by the Golden Palace online casino, the money going to the Bolivian Park Service to run the Madidi National Park. This project has inspired several follow-up taxonomic name auctions, however while these projects are a useful source of funds to taxonomists and conservation projects, they do little to engage the wider public, as they seek primarily to attract the attention of wealthy individuals or organizations.

See also…

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