Flying Oreos and Hourglasses: UW Researchers Name Insects in Ecuador Cloud Forest

December 19, 2012
Three-striped winged insect
This M. oreo species resembles an Oreo cookie.

There are Oreos, beans, pearls and hourglasses flying through the moist, cool and amazingly green high-elevation cloud forests in the Ecuadorian Andes.

Some of those species on the lush slopes are named in honor of University of Wyoming students, faculty members and alumni.

About half a world away -- 12,000 miles -- a newly discovered wasp in Thailand was named by the researchers in honor of Scott Shaw, professor of insect biology and classification at UW and curator of the UW Insect Museum. That wasp is in the same journal article that describes the Lady Gaga wasp. The Shaw species name, not nearly so flamboyant, is Aleiodes scottshawi.

Despite what you may think, entomologists take naming new insect species they’ve discovered pretty seriously. UW Ph.D. student Guinevere Jones names 10 new species of Meteorus wasps in an article published in the November issue of the journal Zootaxa. Shaw, her adviser, is the paper’s co-author.

“Naming new species is a much more complicated process than it initially would seem,” says Jones, a former master’s student of Shaw in the UW College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. “Most important, you must follow all of the guidelines set forth by the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN): The name must be Latinized correctly; the specific epitaph (the species name) cannot already exist. Also, you don't want to name anything after yourself as that is considered bad form and the ultimate display of ego. Some taxonomists name new species after people important to them, celebrities, or unique features/characteristics/behaviors of that new species.”

These parasitoid wasps are beneficial and economically important insects that affect the tropical forest plant community by naturally regulating the populations of plant-feeding caterpillars, Shaw says.

Jones discovered the species of wasps during her work at the Yanayacu Biological Research Station on the eastern slopes of the Ecuadorian Andes. Nestled in the lush cloud forest, the station is open year-round, can sleep 50, differs in elevation from Laramie by only a few footsteps (7,218 versus UW’s 7,200), and climate can change from cool and rainy in the morning to hot and sunny in the afternoon. Yanayacu informational material warns prospective researchers to prepare to get wet.

Jones has been there several times, and Shaw also takes researchers and students to the station and research area. Jones earned her master’s degree in entomology from UW in 2010 and then started her Ph.D. program. She is now teaching and conducting research at UW.

Here are a few names of the new Meteorus wasps and Jones’ rationale for their names.

M. bustamanteorum: Named after the Bustamante family, integral to the continued success of the Yanayacu Center, noted Jones. Forty years ago, the Bustamante family purchased more than 1,300 hectares (about 3,212 acres) of land on the northeastern slopes of the Andes. Resisting the pressure to clear-cut his land in the name of land improvement, Simon Bustamante managed to leave the majority of his property untouched.

M. horologium: Named for the “hourglass-esque” shape on the second tergite (dorsal plate), from Latin for “hourglass.”

M. margarita: The Latin word margarita means “pearl” and is such named for the pearl-like spot directly below the antennal sockets on the face.

M. oreo: With the majority of the body dark in color, with a white middle, this species resembles an Oreo cookie.

M. zitaniae: This species was named in honor of Nina Zitani, the expert on Costa Rican Meteorus and assistant professor in the Department of Biology, Western University, London, Ontario. Zitani is one of Shaw’s former graduate students.

Shaw’s new Ph.D. student has named an insect species after Jones.

“Helmuth Aguirre Fernandez named one of his new Colombian Meteorus species after me,” says Jones, “so there is a Meteorus guineverae flying around Colombia.”

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