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USU Entomologists Discover Two New Wasp Species in Brazil

Thursday, Dec. 12, 2013

Cecilia Waichert and faculty mentor James Pitts
USU doctoral student Cecilia Waichert, left, and faculty mentor James Pitts discovered two rare wasp species in Brazil. They published their findings in the Nov. 20, 2013, edition of 'Zookeys.'
South American wasp specimen
Close examination of the century-old, South American wasp specimen reveals characteristics similar to species in Africa, yet the scientists believe the insect evolved separately.

Discovery of a new insect species isn’t always an occasion to open champagne and alert the media. Utah State University entomologist James Pitts quips he stumbles upon five new wasp species each time he walks through his lab to fetch his morning tea.


“Scientists predict more than a million species of wasps exist,” says Pitts, associate professor in USU’s Department of Biology and the USU Ecology Center.


Untold scores of specimens languish in dusty cabinets in labs throughout the world, waiting for scientists to examine and identify them. Many are duplicates of well-established species but, occasionally, entomologists happen upon a not-yet-known specimen. And that’s exactly what happened to Pitts and his doctoral student Cecilia Waichert, as they combed through hundreds of wasp specimens this past year at the Entomological College of the Federal University of Espírito Santo in Vitória, Brazil.


The scientists found not one, but two new species of spider wasps. The century-old specimens were labeled with dates meticulously recorded with hand-dipped ink on now-yellowed paper.


The USU team published their findings in the Nov. 20, 2013, issue of ZooKeys.


“Including these two species, only four species have been identified for this genus,” Pitts says. “This is the first record of wasps of this genus from the Brazilian states of Espírito Santo and Minas Gerais.”


The shiny black insects with flat, plate-shaped heads belong to the family Pompilidae. Their respective names are Abernessia giga and Abernessia capixaba.


Interestingly, similar species are abundant in Africa, but Pitts says the South American wasps are too recent to have evolved from their Old World peers.


“We think the South American wasps have evolved similar features because they prey on similar spiders,” he says.


In addition to studying the wasps’ morphology, Waichert is investigating and mapping the insects’ behavior.


“The females paralyze the spider by stinging it, and then place the prey in a specially built nest,” she says. “The female then lays a single egg on the abdomen of the spider and buries it carefully, hiding the nest from predators.”


Waichert says there’s a positive correlation between the size of the prey and the size of the wasp’s offspring.


“By studying the wasps’ behavior and characteristics, we’re discovering how it evolved,” she says.


Related Links

“Sub-Zero Heroes: USU Entomologist says Ice Age Fostered New Species,” Utah State Today 

USU Department of Biology 

USU Ecology Center 

USU College of Science 


Contact: James Pitts, 435-797-8872, james.pitts@usu.edu


Writer: Mary-Ann Muffoletto, 435-797-3517, maryann.muffoletto@usu.edu

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