A new insect has been discovered!

The discovery of the new leafhopper insect has been swarming the world of science. We break down the details.
31 January 2022

Interview with 

Alvin Helden, Anglia Ruskin University

Phlogis kibalensis

Phlogis kibalensis


Scientists in Cambridge announced this week the discovery in Uganda of a new species of insect that belongs to a group so rare that its closest known relative was last seen in 1969! The new species is a leafhopper; these animals drink sap from plants and in turn are food for birds, beetles and spiders. Alvin Helden, from Anglia Ruskin University, was doing fieldwork when he made what some have dubbed a “once in a lifetime discovery”...

Chris - Alvin. Tell us what the leafhopper looks like.

Alvin - Right? Well you know what a cicada is, it's like a miniature cicada and this particular one looks a little bit odd for a leafhopper. In addition it's a little bit humpbacked, they're generally not that humpbacked. It's quite dark in colour, most are quite lighter. And it's got a sort of metallicy sheen, particularly in its wings, which is really quite unusual too.

Chris - How did you stumble across this one?

Alvin - Okay. I had a little project going, trying to find out the number of kinds of species that existed at a national park in Uganda called Kibale. I was sampling for leafhoppers and I was using a sweet net through some bushy vegetation and I came across this one. I thought it looked unusual, but I didn't know for certain what it was. It was only when I got it back to the UK and I was able to look through various identification guides. I came across a drawing, looking very similar to this and I thought, 'Ah. That's it.' And so I followed that up and then discovered it was very rare indeed.

Chris - How do you notice a new species though?

Alvin - You have to kind of do some research into the literature. See if anybody's found anything before and assume somebody found something really quite similar in the same, very close group. But then you have to actually look at the detailed structures. Particularly in leafhoppers, you really have to look at male genital structures, so really you're talking about the penis and the associated structures. You have to look at that and compare it with other specimens of other species. When I did that, I found that this one was unique and it was different from the very close relative that had been found before.

Chris - Now, the fact that you've discovered something so rare, does that mean that you are the world's luckiest scientist or does this mean actually, they were rare once, but in fact, perhaps conservation efforts or other are sorts of bio remediation efforts to restore environments are working, and in fact, they're now becoming more common than they were?

Alvin - We really don't know. Only three individuals of this particular small group of leafhoppers have ever been found. We don't know why they are so rarely found. Is it because they are really rare and they're just so few of them, or is it, we are just not looking in the right places? Maybe it's just that we don't find them because we don't look in the right places, but we don't know what those places are. We know very, very little about these particular insects and why it might be rare. We can't really say anything about how successful the conservation is. Where it's found is in a national park called Cali national park, which is well protected and it's treated very well by the local people in terms of respecting the boundaries of the national park pretty well. It's in a fairly safe place, but of course, surrounding that national park has been really badly deforested in many ways.



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