41 new species of moths discovered on Congo31/12/2012 10:10:29 Tiny leaf mining moths have very unusual habits
December 2012. In the rain forests of the Congo, where mammals and birds are hunted to near-extinction, an impenetrable sound of buzzing insects blankets the atmosphere.
Because it is a fairly inaccessible region with political unrest, much of the Congo's insect biodiversity remains largely unexplored. In a new book, researchers at the University of Florida and the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Belgium provide insect biodiversity information for this area in Central Africa that is increasingly under threat from habitat destruction.
41 new species
"When we began this project, we had no idea how many species would be out there," said co-author Akito Kawahara, assistant curator of Lepidoptera at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the UF campus. "In a two-week field trip, we discovered nearly 50 potentially new species, which is really surprising. There is still an enormous amount of life out there that we know very little of."
After collecting caterpillars in the wild, researchers raise the larvae to adulthood on-site, a process that takes less than a week for some species.
"Some of these caterpillars actually have the ability to control plant tissue and prevent aging in the plant," Kawahara said. "Now we're trying to actually understand the mechanism behind how they actually do it."
Lithocolletinae, the group that the authors focused on, is one of the oldest-known subfamilies in Lepidoptera, first described by Carl Linnaeus in 1758. The only book describing its species in Africa was published in 1961.
"This is really one of the first major revisions on species level of any of the African members of this large family," said Donald Davis, a research entomologist at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution. "Any of their discoveries is going to be important because it greatly increases what we previously knew, how little we knew."
While many large organisms are being studied, not many researchers focus on the smaller organisms, Davis said. Information about Lithocolletinae is needed to understand which species may be agricultural pests or used to control invasive plants.
"It's an unknown fauna and so they've made a major step to start telling us something about this biota," Davis said. "Because the moths are herbivores, they have both beneficial and detrimental benefits. It's one of the things we get a lot of questions about."