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UW Entomologists Discover Mummy-Making Wasps in Ecuador

May 14, 2014
The recently discovered wasp species Aleiodes shakirae was named after Colombian singer and musician Shakira. (Eduardo Shimbori Photo)

Jimmy Fallon, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Ellen DeGeneres have more in common than being celebrity talk show hosts. They also have new wasp species named after them as a result of work conducted by University of Wyoming entomologist Scott Shaw.

Field work conducted in the cloud forests of Ecuador by Shaw and colleagues led to the discovery of 24 Aleiodes wasps that mummify caterpillars. The findings, by Shaw and Eduardo Shimbori, Universidade Federal de São Carlos, Brazil, recently were published in the open access journal ZooKeys. Shimbori currently conducts postdoctoral research studies with Shaw at UW.

Among the 24 new insect species described by Shimbori and Shaw, in addition to the talk show hosts, are species named after Ecuadorian artist Eduardo Kingman, American poet Robert Frost, and Colombian singer and musician Shakira.

The Shakira wasp causes its host caterpillar to bend and twist in an unusual way, which reminded the authors of belly dancing, for which the South American performer also is famous. In a previous work, Shaw had named a species after David Letterman.

"These wasps are very small organisms, being only 4 to 9 millimeters long, but they have an enormous impact on forest ecology," Shaw says.  He adds that Aleiodes wasps are parasites of forest caterpillars.

The female wasps search for a particular kind of caterpillar and inject an egg into it. Parasitism by the wasp does not immediately kill the caterpillar, but it continues to feed and grow for a time. Eventually, feeding by the wasp larva causes the host caterpillar to shrink and mummify; then the immature wasp makes its cocoon inside the mummified remains of its conquered prey.

The young wasp cuts an exit hole from the caterpillar mummy and flies away to mate, and continue this cycle of parasitic behavior.

"Killing and mummifying caterpillars may sound bad, but these are actually highly beneficial insects," Shaw says. "These wasps are helping to naturally control the populations of plant-feeding caterpillars, so they help to sustain the biodiversity of tropical forests."

Shaw tells more about the behavior of parasitic wasps and other insects in his forthcoming book, “Planet of the Bugs,” due to be published by the University of Chicago Press in September.

The field research was conducted by Shaw at the Yanayacu cloud forest research station of Napo Province, in the eastern Andes slopes of Ecuador. Previous research by Shaw had discovered nine species of mummy-making wasps at the site, and others are known from around the world. But the full extent of these insects’ biodiversity in Ecuador did not become apparent until recently, when Shimbori and Shaw collaborated to name them all.

The research was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation, called Caterpillars and Parasitoids of the Eastern Andes.


Hear entomologist Scott Shaw describe how the recently discovered moths cause caterpillars to mummify.Hear entomologist Scott Shaw describe how the recently discovered moths cause caterpillars to mummify.

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