October 24, 2013

Concerning Hobbits... and Microgastrinae wasps

Today the journal Zootaxa publishes a paper about a new genus of parasitoid wasps only found in New Zealand. The article is open access and can be freely accessed here. It is the second paper of a series on the New Zealand fauna of Microgastrinae wasps, as result of collaborations started in 2011 by Darren Ward and me. Darren is an expert on wasps and ants (among other topics) but, most importantly, he is a scientist with Landcare Research, Auckland, where the largest collection of insects of New Zealand is housed. Thanks to his work, and the work done by other researchers before him, we can now study the fascinating world of parasitoid wasps inhabiting that extraordinary country.

The new genus was named "Shireplitis". The ending "plitis" refers to the superficial similarity of its species with another genus of parasitoid waps, Paroplitis, which is found in Europe, North America, and northern areas of Vietnam and Philippines. The first part of the name "Shire" refers to The Shire, the region exclusively inhabited by Hobbits in J. R. R. Tolkien’s fictional universe setting of Middle-earth. And then, five of the new species found in the genus, which are also described in the paper, are named after the hobbits Bilbo, Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin. A sixth new species is named after Tolkien himself.

Meet the new six species of Shireplitis parasitoid wasps, from New Zealand. The black line in the middle represents 1 millimiter, every wasp species is roughly 2 mm long.

It is not uncommon for scientist to name new species using funny, famous, and/or interesting names. For example, there are species named after Darth Vader, Tinkerbell, Greek Gods, Lady Gaga, and anything in between. Several websites have compiled many of those names, my favourite site being the one maintained by Doug Yanega (University of California, Riverside). His list even includes a section exclusively devoted to names used for characters and creatures from Tolkien!

In our case, we used Tolkien-related names for two main reasons. First, which goes without saying, is because we are fans of Tolkien works. In my personal case, I consider myself a die hard fan of The Lord of the Ring movies, which I usually watch 2-3 times per year (in the way real fans do it: watching the three movies one right after the other, in a 12 hours or so marathon). [By the way: I cannot wait until the three DVDs of The Hobbit movies become available at some point in 2015... at that time I will try an "Iron Man Tolkien Movies Marathon"!].

The second reason is more related to the scientific content of the paper itself, although still carries a strong metaphorical meaning. The new genus is endemic (i.e., exclusive) of New Zealand (where a replicate of the Shire exists); and its six new species are rather short and stout (as text-book hobbits are supposed to be!). All the species have been found in different mountain ranges in New Zealand (mostly on the South Island), meaning that they are truly unique. Last but not least, the species of Shireplitis are morphologically rather similar to Paroplitis, in spite of the huge separation in the geographical distribution of both genera. We think that is due to the similar ecological conditions those wasps species find when looking for its prey (caterpillars), which have made them to look alike in spite they are not closely related. This is a nice example of convergent evolution, and a fascinating testimony of how life evolves under similarly yet slightly different conditions!

So, what is next? Darren and I still have 80-100 new species of microgastrine wasps from New Zealand to describe, which we hope to do within the next few years... We will likely name some species in more conventional ways. But we will certainly have plenty of room to link more names of the Tollkien universe with the scientific universe!

I can surely think of having a few more new wasp species named after the remaining members of the Fellowship of the Ring. And beyond that the new characters of the new Hobbit movies. The sky is the limit... Well, not really, the actual limit is the biodiversity richness -i.e. the number of species- of New Zealand that remains undescribed. But, fortunately, there are still plenty of new species waiting to be discovered.

Next time you watch one of The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings movies, when you look at the beautiful scenery shown as background, think that those mountains hold much more than elf or orcs... they are harbouring an amazing diversity of life, including our new friends, the Shireplitis parasitoid wasps!


  1. Amazing! Great! This is one of the things that make us to love this amazing world much more. And to investigate, discover, read. Thanks!

    1. Dear Anonymous,
      Thank you very much! Keep always your desire to investigate, discover and read.