You might remember this story from last August, when the discovery of a species of Waspthulu was announced. The researchers just published the first paper describing this species. Its name is now Megalara garuda.
“Because of the spectacular appearance of the male of this species, it is named after the “Garuda”, the national symbol of Indonesia; a mythical bird-like, warrior creature.”
I propose as a common name “Waspzilla,” “Waspthulu”, or maybe “Hymenoptosaurus.” Just how big is it?
The male measures about two-and-a-half-inches long, Kimsey said. “Its jaws are so large that they wrap up either side of the head when closed. When the jaws are open they are actually longer than the male’s front legs. I don’t know how it can walk. The females are smaller but still larger than other members of their subfamily, Larrinae.”
These wasps are in a group commonly known as digger wasps or sand wasps, and typically are predators. The biology of this species is still not known. In fact, this species has never been observed alive.
The really fascinating new piece of the puzzle revealed by the research paper is that this species is not completely new to Western scientists. One specimen of this wasp was collected by a German entomologist in the 1930s from the same area–but not described. Taxonomic entomologists do tend to pin first, ask questions later.
To be fair, untangling the life history of an insect is an incredibly complex task. Lots of an insect’s life happens in places very inaccessible to humans. It can take decades to begin to understand where and how insects make a living.
The authors believe the freaky jaws on the male are sexual dimorphism (males and females have very different appearances), and suspect they are somehow involved in mating displays or conflict over mating. Perhaps these jaws are the equivalent of deer antlers, or beetle horns.
Unfortunately, finding out more about this species will not be easy:
“Sulawesi, a large Indonesian island located between Borneo and New Guinea, is known not only for its endemic biodiversity, but its rainforest and its proximity to the equator. Development threatens plant and animal life.… The terrain was steep, slippery and overall, physically challenging, Lynn Kimsey said. “This part of Sulawesi gets about 400 inches of rain a year,” she said. “We were told that Sulawesi has a dry and rainy season. But the only difference we could see between the dry and rainy season is that during the dry season, it rains only in the afternoon.
Kimsey is a collaborator of a five-year $4 million grant awarded to UC Davis scientists in 2008 to study the biodiversity of fungi, bacteria, plants, insects and vertebrates on Sulawesi, all considered threatened by logging operations and mining developments. Much of the mountain was logged two decades ago and now there are plans for an open pit nickel mine, Kimsey said.”
Pit mining has a dismal record for being environmentally friendly–one major pit mine in Indonesia dumps its tailings directly into the ocean. It’s entirely possible that we will never know more about this species than the few specimens collected.
The grant funding this research is looking, in part, for species of medicinal and commercial value in the Sulawesi rainforest before it’s plowed up. I think we should care about this wasp not because it has utilitarian value to us, but because it is another example of the amazing evolutionary history and diversity of life on earth. I don’t know how to save that area, and make it possible for the people living there to thrive as well as wasps. But I can hope.
“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
Kimsey, L., & Ohl, M. (2012). Megalara garuda, a new genus and species of larrine wasps from Indonesia (Larrinae, Crabronidae, Hymenoptera) ZooKeys, 177 DOI: 10.3897/zookeys.177.2475
Hmm…not sure how they got that “two and a half inches” in the original press release. The description says 32-34 mm (about 1.5 inches), and the PR even includes a picture showing it to be about that size (it’s as long as the first joint of her finger). Still pretty damn big though…
Oh, good catch! I didn’t notice that.
*sigh* I’m a little familiar with Sulawesi from the botanical side, so I’m hoping that you’re wrong about never seeing this species alive in the future. I’m hoping, but I’m not encouraged. (My specialty is in carnivorous plants, and Sulawesi is home to several endemic species of Nepenthes pitcher plants. Several species last seen in the late Nineteenth Century are most likely extinct today, and others are only known from their one type specimen. Now to read this, I’m a bit more depressed than usual.)
Midnight Rambler, didn’t you know? Whenever the size of something that is potentially scary (like insects) are reported, the true-value number is always, automatically, multiplied by a factor of 2.
This is an absolute, unbreakable, journalistic law.
“To be fair, untangling the life history of an insect is an incredibly complex task.” To be fair to whom? The pinned wasp?
That relates to my statement here:
“Taxonomic entomologists do tend to pin first, ask questions later.”
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