Wasps are usually the bad guys when it comes to New Zealand’s biodiversity, but some good news has come out of Middle Earth. In mid-December, Landcare Research reported that six new native wasp species had been described and published in the science journal Zootaxa.

Unlike their introduced very distant criminal cousins, this particular group of parasitoid wasps is important for horticulture and agriculture because they help control pest caterpillars on fruit trees and vegetable crops, reducing the amount of pesticide spray necessary to use on crops and also increasing yields and productivity.

Small, short and stout

Dr Darren Ward, one of the paper’s authors, was apparently inspired by characters in Tolkien’s famous The Lord of the Rings when naming the wasps. The news release says the six species found only in New Zealand are all small, short, and stout – just like hobbits.

The newly described species were named after Bilbo, Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pippin and the author, Tolkien. The genus is named Shireplitis. The first part of the name ‘Shire’ refers to of course the hobbits’ Shire, and the ending ‘plitis’ refers to the similarity of another genus of parasitoid wasps, Paroplitis, found in Europe, North America and South-East Asia.

Convergent evolution

“We think these similarities [with Paroplitis] have evolved due to similar ecological conditions that these small wasps species face when looking for their prey [caterpillars]. This has made them look alike despite the fact they are not closely related. This is a nice example of convergent evolution and a fascinating testimony of how life evolves under similar yet slightly different conditions,” says Dr Ward.

The six newly described species are S. bilboi, S. frodoi, S. meriadoci, S. peregrini, S. samwisei and S. tolkieni.

The research was published in the journal Zootaxa.

Activity idea

Your students can learn more about how Linnaean classification system works with this activity. Students write a formal introduction for an insect species of their choice, including information about the insect’s relationship to other animals and also the land.
Insect mihi

Useful links

Read about how and why the authors named the newly identified wasps.
http://cncbraconidae.blogspot.co.nz/

    Published 17 February 2014