Three decades after it was first captured in the mosquito-infested hardwood hammocks of the Florida Keys, scientists have identified a short-winged parasitic wasp as a new species — making it the first discovery of the fly-sized insects in more than 30 years.
In any other field, this might be big news. In the bug world, not so much. Ninety percent of such wasps fluttering about in the wild remain unidentified.
So in an attempt to make his discovery stand out — and draw attention to the fragile, disappearing endemic forest it inhabits — entomologist Jose Fernandez-Triana decided to give his find a name he hoped would rise above the Periplaneta americanas and Tetramorium caespitums (translation: cockroaches and ants) of the world.
Behold, the Keylimepie peckorum, named in honor of both the islands’ famed dessert and the renowned collector who first trapped the wasp while hunting for beetles.
“You have a number of plants and animals in the Keys that are charismatic,” Fernandez-Triana said, ticking off the Key Largo wood rat, the Key deer and the Miami blue butterfly. “They become icons for conservation. It seems to me the wasp might be added to the list.
“It’s a nice wasp,” he added. “The butterfly is much more beautiful, but my point is you don’t need to be beautiful to be amazing.”
The nearly invisible Keylimepie now joins the colorful ranks of memorably named insects including the Scaptia (Plinthina) beyonceae, a horsefly with a bootylicious, golden behind; the Mastophora dizzydeani, a spider that uses a sticky ball of silk to capture prey; the Polemistus chewbacca wasp, no explanation needed; and the Scrotum humanum, the original name given to the Megalosaurus by a naturalist who in 1793 mistook the dinosaur’s femur, for, well, the man parts of a Roman war elephant.
If this story were only about the naming of a new wasp, it might end here. But there’s an emotional arc that ties collector to discoverer. And then there’s the insect itself, one of a family of wasps that helps maintain the delicate balance of the ecosystem with gruesome effectiveness.
Also, there’s the painstaking work that led to the find, in Ontario of all places, in an overlooked drawer full of dead wasps by a transplanted Cuban entomologist working at the Canadian National Collection of Insects.
“You’ve read about libraries that from time to time happen to find an old paper say, like a new Mozart sonata?” asked Fernandez-Triana, a research scientist at the collection of about 17 million insects. “Imagine that times a hundred because we have way more specimens than books in a library....We are literally surrounded by new species. We know they are there, but it takes time to study them and place them in context.”
The story of Keylimepie peckorum begins in 1985, when Canadian entomologist Stewart Peck and his wife were on a regular trip to the Keys to collect beetles.
Peck, named one of Canada’s greatest living explorers last year by the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, says his family first came to Florida as homesteaders following the Civil War and settled in St. Cloud. His family moved north in search of work, but he says he was smitten by frequent trips to visit to his grandparents. His parents eventually moved back and lived on Big Pine Key.
As a biologist, Peck focused on tropical beetles and helped compile the first official list of Florida beetles, the largest order of insects. The Pecks had an ongoing collection program in the Keys and when they laid their trap lines, they quite often caught other things. So after he extracted his beetles, Peck routinely sent off specimens to other scientists or deposited them in the Canadian National Collection.
Every now and then, Peck still gets calls about a find and has to track down his old field notes, which go back to his first summer job collecting cave animals in Kentucky. Just recently, he said a request came for information from a 1965 specimen.
In the mid-’80s, Peck and his wife were making trips to Florida every two to three months to check trap lines. According to his notes, the wasps were captured in Royal Palm Hammock in Everglades National Park, Watson’s Hammock on Big Pine, near the Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge in North Key Largo and on some small islands near Marathon during two trips between 1985 and 1986.
At the time, Fernandez-Triana was an eighth-grader in Cuba.
Long before he met him, or moved to Canada to become a friend, Fernandez-Triana said he knew of Peck’s exhaustive work. In Cuba, Fernandez-Triana studied entomology and went on to focus on parasitic wasps and DNA barcoding.
“Even before I got to Canada, I read his papers on biodiversity,” Fernandez-Triana said.
As part of his research, which includes finding wasps that might be useful in the agriculture industry, Fernandez-Triana had started going through the vast inventory of about 300,000 wasp specimens at the collection. One day, he said, he spotted a drawer labeled “Unidentified Wasps from Florida.” As he sorted through the tiny bugs, he spotted some unfamiliar short-winged wasps.
At about a tenth of an inch long, identifying parasitic wasps can be tedious work. Heads and eyes must be measured, tiny thoraxes examined and delicate wings compared. Altogether, Fernandez-Triana studied 60 specimens to confirm his findings.
What stood out was the female’s wings. In all the parasitic wasps he has described — he estimates hundreds — none have had such short wings. This particular group uses caterpillars as a host. Females inject their eggs into the caterpillars, sometimes paralyzing it. Gestating eggs then feed off the caterpillar, hatch and eat their way to freedom. Fernandez-Triana calls them top predators, despite their size, crucial to keeping voracious caterpillars in check in a forest.
“Not only big charismatic things are important. You need smaller ones as well,” Fernandez-Triana said. “You don’t bring a polar bear or a python to eat ants.”
Parasitic wasps are also important in agriculture, acting as pollinators while providing an alternative to chemical pesticides. About 50,000 species exist, attacking everything from aphids to stink bugs.
The wasp’s short wings led Fernandez-Triana to theorize that the orange-ish wasp, much brighter than its cousins, probably evolved to withstand the Keys’ winds and hurricanes while being able to cut through low brush to find caterpillars. Males have longer wings because they need to fly greater distances to find female mates, he said.
“It’s a unique, evolutionary situation” likely adapted to meet conditions found in the Keys, he said.
In a paper published in March in the journal ZooKeys that announced the discovery, Fernandez-Triana pointed out that the short-winged female is also less likely to be able to adapt to climate change or pressures from South Florida’s ever-expanding development, making it even more vulnerable. Little else is known, not even the kind of caterpillar the wasp uses as a host.
There’s another problem. The wasp may have gone extinct in the 30 years since it was found.
After he made the discovery and contacted Peck to get his field notes, Fernandez-Triana called around to find specimens in other collections. There were none. Since 1985, as far as he can tell, not a single Keylimepie has been spotted.
“After I collected it, [Royal Palm Hammock] was pretty much flattened by Hurricane Andrew, so we don’t know if it’s still there,” Peck said before offering hopefully: “The North Key Largo site hasn’t had much damage.”
Next month, Fernandez-Triana is planning on making his first collecting expedition, retracing some of Peck’s steps as well as looking in other areas where he thinks he might find the wasps, including the tropical forest on the 120-acre Montgomery Botanical Center in Coral Gables. If he can find another, he’s hoping to enlist his little wasp as another fighter in what he fears is a losing battle to save the island chain not far from his homeland.
It is “such a beautiful area but so fragile,” he said wistfully. “So I thought my two cents would be to get this wasp widely known to better understand what we have in the Keys.”
As for the name, Peck says he was surprised and honored to be recognized for “all the effort and the swatting at all the mosquitoes.” If the name helps advance conservation, then it will have succeeded, he said.
“It is a fragile habitat that cannot sustain unlimited growth,” he said. “We don’t know if they’re still there or if they’re still alive. I would think they still are. It will just require very patient collecting.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated there were 2,700 species of parasitic wasps. There are 50,000. Ninety percent remain unidentified.
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