Guelph prof part of team that identified 21 new wasp species in Costa Rica

U of Guelph Professor Alex Smith says the 21 species of wasps found in Costa Rica are not as sociable as the yellow jackets you normally see in Ontario. Instead, the females live a mostly solitary life, in search of caterpillars to inject their eggs into.

The team named each species after a different Costa Rican school child

Meet the Promicrograster naomiduarteae named after Costa Rican student Naomi Duarte. (Jose Fernandez-Triana of the Canadian National Collection of Insects (CNC) in Ottawa)

Professor Alex Smith at the University of Guelph is very excited about the 21 species of wasps recently discovered in Costa Rica.

"They're kind of gruesome little predators, if you're a caterpillar, but I think they're wicked cool organisms," said Smith.

The Associate Professor with the Department of Integrative Biology was part of a team of researchers from Canada, the U.S. and Costa Rica who were hoping to understand the carnivorous female species who spend their time searching for caterpillars.

The wasps were identified by José Fernández-Triana and the team's findings were published in the Journal of Hymenoptera Research in June

Student Naomi Duarte holding up a photo of one of 20 species of wasps identified in Costa Rica. ( Melissa Espinoza Rodríguez of the Area de Conservacion Guanacaste)

Not social like yellow jackets

Smith explains these species are not as social as the Ontario yellow jackets. Instead the Costa Rican wasps live a mostly solitary life, with the females almost constantly search for catepillars to act as an unwitting host for their brood. 

"They inject their babies into the caterpillar, the babies digest the caterpillar's slowly while maintaining it alive, until the very last minute when they emerge and kind of flit away."  

"If you've seen the movie Alien, with the bursting out of the stomach, that's kind of a modelling of what these carnivores do," explained Smith.

The wasps perform a vital ecological function by killing caterpillars since they can eat up 20 per cent of the leafy area of a tree in any forest. Without the carnivorous wasps, the caterpillars would become a big problem. 

Award winning art from a young Costa Rican girl who had a species of wasp named after her. ( Melissa Espinoza Rodríguez of the Area de Conservacion Guanacaste)

'Sky islands of cold wet habitat'

Just over half of the 21 new species live in vulnerable habitats called cloud forests which are located near the tops of volcanoes.

Smith describes them as little sky islands of cold wet habitat that are being affected by climate change. He figures they have only identified as few as one per cent of the species on the planet.

Researchers are looking into how the ecosystem is working or not working due to the effects of climate change.

Smith explains what they're doing now is building a dictionary of words in an ecological setting to better understand area.

He breaks down his research analysis by referencing a popular TV show.

"So think about that," he said. "If you knew only one per cent of the 2100 characters in the Game of Thrones, how good well could you reproduce that wonderful narrative."

Wasps named after school children        

But forget pop culture - the new wasp species don't have  names such as Jon Snow or the Khaleesi.

Instead professors Winnie Hallwachs and Daniel H. Janzen gave each unique species a name, like Naomi Durate, in honour of 21 local Costa Rican school children. 

The students received the honours after winning a local competition that asked them to write or draw something about the unique forests around them. 

The students live near a World Heritage Preserve. The Area de Conservacion Guanacaste (ACG) is about the size of the Greater Toronto Area and is believed to contain about three per cent of all species on the planet. 

Corrections

  • The headline and deck of this story have been changed to reflect the fact that professor Alex Smith was just one member of the team that found the wasps. There were 21 species of wasp identified, not 20. And two other members of the team named the wasps after local school children, not Alex Smith. Finally, only 60 per cent of the new wasp species live in cloud forest habitats.
    Jul 16, 2016 10:42 AM ET