Earlier this year, a study came out describing a new plant species in the Andes that is the sole home of an estimated 40 or 50 kinds of insects. I thought that had a certain “wow” factor. It also seemed like a chance to write about “keystone species”—the ones on which whole ecosystems depend—and the ripple effects when such a species goes extinct.
So I asked for a comment from evolutionary ecologist Dan Janzen at the University of Pennsylvania, and he responded with characteristic pith and vinegar. “You tell me what species on the planet is not an important part of the life cycle of many tens to hundreds of other species,” he demanded. “As for so-called keystone species, that simply means a species whose removal or other kind of perturbation happens to create a set of ripples big enough for a two-meter-tall, diurnal, nearly deaf, nearly dumb, nearly odor-incompetent, nearly taste-incompetent, urban invasive species”—that would be us, Homo sapiens—“to see, or bother to see, the ripple.” I let that project slide.
But a new study out this week in the journal Zookeys gives me a better idea of what Janzen was getting at. It describes 186 new species in northwestern Costa Rica, all parasitic wasps, the largest of them about half the length of my pinkie nail, and most—at one to five millimeters—much smaller. They’re certainly too small for most people to notice and too obscure to care about—except perhaps that each is a deadly master of a macabre kind of biological warfare.
First, the background. For more than 30 years, ecologists and parataxonomists—the foot soldiers in the science of species discovery—have been methodically prowling the Read the rest of this entry »