New life

The Transkei shieldback (Transkeidectes multidentis, 1992) was one of the first species that I described, based on a single specimen collected in 1947 near Port St. John's in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. Describing a new species based on a single specimen is a horrible idea (you never know whether you might be dealing with an aberrant form of something already known), and ever since I have been looking for more individuals to confirm the existence of this species.

The Transkei shieldback (Transkeidectes multidentis, 1992) was one of the first species that I described, based on a single specimen collected in 1947 near Port St. John’s in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. Describing a new species based on a single specimen is a horrible idea (you never know whether you might be dealing with an aberrant form of something already known), and ever since I have been looking for more individuals to confirm the existence of this species.

To my enormous relief, I have recently located a thriving population of the Transkei shieldback in the coastal forest of the Silaka Nature Reserve near Port St. John's. The species is real.

To my enormous relief, I have recently located a thriving population of the Transkei shieldback in the coastal forest of the Silaka Nature Reserve near Port St. John’s. The species is real.

Today marks the first anniversary of The Smaller Majority blog which, to my delight and surprise, has been steadily gaining readership. I am grateful to all who visited these pages over the last 12 months, especially those who kindly left the wonderful, insightful, occasionally snarky comments under many of the 130+ individual stories – keep’em coming! So far this blog has amounted to 75,000 words and 770 photos – that’s a decent size book; maybe I should have done that instead? Nah! And what better way to acknowledge the portent of this occasion than to talk about what I consider the most exciting aspect of my work as an entomologist – the discovery of new forms of life.

When I was about seven years old my father said something that, in retrospect, was probably the most important piece of information I have ever received, one that has influenced my entire life. I should mention that my father was an astronomer, and he did his best to try to entice me with his line of work, to no avail. (At some point he even built a telescope for me, but I only used it to watch birds and spy on my neighbors; I was a lost cause.) To my question about a possibility of finding life elsewhere in the Universe he replied that those chances were slim, but that our own planet still had many organisms that remained undiscovered and unnamed. That statement stopped me in my tracks. I instantly envisioned mysterious, dinosaur-like creatures hiding in the depths of African jungles. But he explained that the yet-unnamed animals were probably small, and that they might even be living in our own backyard. I am certain that at that very moment I decided to become an explorer who would spend his life questing for those elusive, undiscovered creatures. Of course, I did not realize then that most discoveries of new species take place among dusty drawers of museums, made by taxonomists whose lives are decidedly less than glamorous. But the stage for a career in entomology was set.

The Martian landscapes of the Northern Cape of South Africa, despite its foreboding appearance and extremely harsh conditions, is home to a number of very interesting orthopteroid insects.

The Martian landscapes of the Northern Cape of South Africa, despite their foreboding appearance and extremely harsh conditions, are home to a number of very interesting orthopteroid insects.

My friend Corey Bazelet and I discovered the handsome, wingless katydid Brinckiella arboricola Naskrecki & Bazelet, 2009 in the Geogap Nature Reserve of Northern Cape.

My friend Corey Bazelet and I discovered the handsome, wingless katydid Brinckiella arboricola Naskrecki & Bazelet, 2009 in the Geogap Nature Reserve of Northern Cape.

It took me fifteen years to run into a beautiful little gem of a katydid in a meadow in Turkey, an animal that until then had eluded entomologists. I named it Poecilimon marmaraensis, after the Marmara Sea on the shores of which this species occurs. The elation of knowing that I was the first person on Earth to find it was intoxicating. I am sure that all my fellow taxonomists have felt it at some point in their lives, and for many it is the ultimate reward. Finding new forms of life is to me one of the greatest adventures in biology, one that the current biodiversity crisis makes a pressing necessity. Extinctions and the appearance of new species are natural phenomena that once were fairly well balanced, with speciation always slightly outpacing extinction and making Earth’s biodiversity increasingly richer. But with the advent of man, this balance started to tip dramatically toward extinction, and we now lose species at a rate a thousand times higher than the natural, “background” one. Regardless of being named or not, each species gone extinct is another book of genetic code burned, another piece of the intricate puzzle of life on Earth irreversibly lost. And while destruction of natural habitats and the alarming pace of species loss give little hope for preserving all the components of Earth’s biota for future generations, we should make every effort to document all organisms that still inhabit our planet. Still, on some days, the nagging pessimist in me points out that maybe all that we taxonomists do is carve names on tombstones and write obituaries for species who may be gone by the time their formal, scientific names are published. He may be right, but I hope he isn’t.

In spite of all the evidence that the world at large simply does not care about most of our non-human brethren, I still believe that armed with the complete knowledge of all Life on Earth we will be able to make the best decisions as to where conservation efforts should be focused, and that we will manage to save a very high proportion of the world’s phyletic diversity and biocomplexity. The more diverse Life is, the more stable and capable of self-regulation are its assemblages. The more species alive, the more likely we are to discover new medicines, new crops, or new structures worth imitating. The more Life we have around, the more our own is worth living.

Brown-faced spear bearer (Copiphora hastata Naskrecki, 2000) – This huge conehead katydid is common across Central America. Females of this and related species carry an enormous ovipositor that allows them to lay eggs at the base of litter-filled fronds of small palm trees.

Brown-faced spear bearer (Copiphora hastata Naskrecki, 2000) – This huge conehead katydid is common across Central America. Females of this and related species carry an enormous ovipositor that allows them to lay eggs at the base of litter-filled fronds of small palm trees.

The Costa Rican rainforest is home to about 350 species of katydids, many yet unknown, of which I have so far discovered and named a little over 50.

The Costa Rican rainforest is home to about 350 species of katydids, many yet unknown, of which I have so far discovered and named a little over 50.

The Simandou Mts. blattodean (Simanoda conserfariam Roth & Naskrecki, 2003) is an insect that may be already extinct in the wild. I first found it in a cave in SE Guinea (West Africa), a place that was part of a large mining concession. Although mining operations in the Simandou were recently halted (presumably soon to be resumed), the cave was on the path of a major road that was being constructed and it may no longer exist.

The Simandou Mts. blattodean (Simanoda conserfariam Roth & Naskrecki, 2003) is an insect that may be already extinct in the wild. I first found it in a cave in SE Guinea (West Africa), a place that was part of a large mining concession. Although mining operations in the Simandou were recently halted (presumably soon to be resumed), the cave was on the path of a major road that was being constructed and it may no longer exist.

I described the Agile grasshopper (Rhachitopis brachyopterus Naskrecki, 1992) based on a small series of preserved specimens collected in Zimbabwe, but until recently have not seen a live individual. This is very common in entomology as most species are described using specimens from museum collections, often collected tens or even over a hundred years earlier.

I described the Agile grasshopper (Rhachitopis brachypterus Naskrecki, 1992) based on a small series of preserved specimens collected in Zimbabwe, but until recently have not seen a live individual. Such a situation is very common in entomology as most species are described using specimens from museum collections, often preserved tens or even over a hundred years earlier.

During the Cheringoma Plateou biodiversity survey in Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique, I crawled out of my tent one morning and the first insect I saw was my Agile grasshopper. Little compares to the joy of seeing for the first time a living individual of a species that you have described and named.

During the Cheringoma Plateau biodiversity survey in Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique, I crawled out of my tent one morning and the first insect I saw was my Agile grasshopper. Little compares to the joy of seeing for the first time a living individual of a species that you have described and named.

In addition to my work on insects, I have occasionally dabbled in arachnids. The Atewa dinospider (Ricinoides atewa Naskrecki, 2008) was an exciting discovery I made in SE Ghana.

In addition to my work on insects, I have occasionally dabbled in arachnids. The Atewa dinospider (Ricinoides atewa Naskrecki, 2008) was an exciting discovery I made in SE Ghana.

When it comes to yet undiscovered and unnamed species, Papua New Guinea is one of the richest places on the planet – nearly 80% of all species that I had collected there turned out to be new to science. One of the new species was the Ingrisch's katydid (Ingrischia macrocephala Naskrecki & Rentz, 2010), which my co-author David Rentz aptly christened "a katydid designed by a committee."

When it comes to yet undiscovered and unnamed species, Papua New Guinea is one of the richest places on the planet – nearly 80% of all species that I had collected there turned out to be new to science. One of them was the Ingrisch’s katydid (Ingrischia macrocephala Naskrecki & Rentz, 2010), which my co-author David Rentz aptly christened “a katydid designed by committee.”

11 thoughts on “New life

  1. Congratulations on a year! Fabulous post. Thanks for taking the time to share these wonderful stories and fantastical creatures that most of us will never see in real life. I remember being thrilled the day you started this blog because I can’t get enough of your photos and travel stories.

  2. Happy Anniversary! Thank you for taking the time to share your detailed knowledge combined with your excellent photographs. The combination is unique and reminds us to search out “the smaller majority” both in our travels and backyard.

    Thank You!

  3. Thank you for a wonderful year of posts! The Smaller Majority blog has quickly become one of my favorite reads. Not only are the macro shots beautiful, your landscape pictures are incredibly compelling-few photographers seem to excel at both.

  4. I read dozens of insect biology blogs, but none are like yours. I save yours posts for last, going through my feed reader, because your posts are so rich. You’re writing short stories worthy of being bound up as a book, but it’s such a thrill to be able to take them in small, brilliant doses, and for free. I’m so grateful to be a reader, here, and that you jumped into blogging with such dedication. Every post is a treasure.

  5. Nice one, Piotr. I love the landscape of the Wild Coast. Though I had the privilege of exploring Silaka, it was unfortunately in my pre-insect-loving days.

  6. Congratulations on one year! I am happy to have stumbled across your blog. If another book does show up on the shelves, however, I’ll happily take it home with me. :)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s