Male (top) and female (bottom) specimens of Phassus zalinamensis
Through the Naturalista MX platform, rangers and ‘citizen scientists’ helped researchers describe a new species that inhabits the Sierra Madre Oriental of Coahuila and Nuevo León.
By: Jessica Jaramillo
When Ivonne Garzón dissected the moth she was holding in her hands, she thought she had done something wrong. He couldn’t find the parts that he usually sees in the reproductive system of these insects. The specimen, collected in the sierra shared by Coahuila and Nuevo León, was very different from what she knew.
“I thought I had done something wrong and damaged the body. This is the holotype (the specimen used for the description of a new species) a very important organism. So it was quite funny, exciting and confusing”, explains the Lepidoptera curator of the National Collection of Insects of the Institute of Biology of the UNAM.
In the world there is a record of approximately 165 thousand species of butterflies and moths. But it is very likely that there are many more that have not yet been described and, for those who study these organisms, it is impossible to know them all. The specimen that Yvonne had in her hands was proof of this.
But this story began in 2018, years before it came into Ivonne’s hands, when a group of rangers in the Sierra de Zapalinamé (Coahuila) first observed a moth that caught their attention due to its large size and coloration. After photographing it, they uploaded it to the Naturalista MX platform, where John Grehan , the specialist in moths of the Hepialidae family, recognized it as a species that did not match any other of the genus and suggested collecting a specimen for its description as a new species.
On July 19, 2021, Alejandro Durán found the male moth (holotype) again in the same locality and collected it for transport. A month and a half later, Carlos Velazco collected the female (paratype), 40 kilometers from there, at Cerro La Mota, in García Nuevo León. Both specimens were sent to Ivonne Garzón for dissection and photography.
With the information generated in this chain, John Grehan (United States) and Carlos Mielke (Brazil) were able to confirm the suspicions. For this, an analysis of mitochondrial DNA helped, where they found that both, male and female, belonged to the same species: a new one, which they named Phassus zalinamensis , in honor of the place where it was found: the Sierra de Zapalinamé and the north of the Sierra Madre Oriental . The results were published in the journal ZooNova, in July 2022.
The eyes of citizen scientists
Naturalista MX is a platform that has been of great help in doing science as a community. According to Ivonne, he gave thousands of eyes to those who investigate. So while the community is out capturing images, scientists can teach or write proposals for funding their studies. “It was a huge change for us. We cannot always be doing field work”, he explains.
This platform also contains information on biotic interactions that are very useful for researchers. “It’s not just the image, it’s also the data that comes contained with the image, such as the host plant,” says Ivonne. “This thing about descriptions of species new to science from Naturalista images has happened many times: a citizen scientist who is fortunately curious enough to take a picture, upload it to the platform and wonder ‘What is this bug?’ That’s how it all starts.”
the ghost of the saw
The now well-known inhabitant of the mountains of Coahuila and Nuevo León, the Phassus zapalinamensis moth, is a species belonging to the Hepialidae family, whose species are known as “ghost moths”, and are considered the oldest group of Lepidoptera.
One interesting thing that they share with other families of moths is that do not have mouthparts (proboscis or tongue) so they don’t feed as adults and instead survive based on what they ate as caterpillars. In the particular case of Zapalinamensis, the male and female have similar but not identical wing patterns.
Another notable difference has to do with the reproductive system. In most butterflies and moths, females have two reproductive holes: one through which they are copulated by the male and another through which they lay their eggs. In the case of Lepidoptera these two cavities are connected, which allows the eggs to move within the body to be later deposited.
However, with ghost moths it is different, since there is no internal connection between these two structures, so the movement of eggs and sperm occurs almost on the outside of the organism. “It was very exciting for me, as a scientist and as a morphologist, to have the opportunity to study these very different organisms,” says Ivonne.
Insects are also part of the balance
The importance of insects and arthropods in general is that they represent 90 percent of the biomass on earth . That is, they are the majority of life that exists on the planet. And, therefore, there are many natural processes that depend on them, or where they have a part. “All life, biodiversity, is connected in interactions, which go from top to bottom or from bottom to top”, says Ivonne. “And these have to do with predation, herbivory, parasitism, all those interactions that allow the ecosystem to maintain a balance.”
So when one removes organisms from an ecosystem, for example, when an organism becomes extinct, that balance is lost, and there is a risk that other organisms will come to cover that role… but not in the same way. And this opens the possibility for invasive species to take advantage of this susceptibility. “When we lose populations of insects and arthropods in general, we are upsetting this balance.”
Ivonne Garzón considers that efforts that focus on conserving a single species are myopic, for example programs that seek to conserve only monarch butterflies. Which is good, but it would be more effective if the effort was focused on conserving the ecosystem and the habitat where many organisms are going to protect themselves and benefit from that effort.
Everything is part of a network
“That one as an individual in his daily life sees an insect and kills it, has little effect on the health of populations. Negative is when a company goes in and cuts down an entire forest, or when the government or a private company creates a mine, a road or a change in the landscape. There the effects are enormous and can cause local extinctions”, says Garzón. “And it’s tragic to lose them to this web of interactions that keep the ecosystem healthy.”
The loss of these populations is terrible as it ultimately also sustains us as a species. For example, the production of many fruits is due to pollination by insects . And when those interactions are damaged, as in the case of pesticides or genetic modifications, it creates long-term changes that affect us humans. “It’s not even altruistic that we should protect these organisms, it’s because our survival depends on them,” says Garzón.
Moths and butterflies, in particular, play important service roles in nature. Its caterpillars eat a certain amount of leaves that helps prevent plants from growing too much, affecting other organisms. In turn, the wasps attack the caterpillars, keeping the population in balance. And the adult butterflies and moths are food for bats, toads and birds. And so in a permanent balance.