Newly Found Insect Nominated for NHMU Executive Director

“If any insect can be described as charismatic,” says Jason Cryan, executive director of the Utah Museum of Natural History, “then leafhoppers are definitely at the top of the list.” You’ve probably seen the little arthropods yourself. Often found sipping liquids from plant stems, these more or less spine-like insects live on every continent except Antarctica. There are so many, in fact, that scientists are still discovering and describing them, including a new species named in honor of Cryan.

Appointed Cladonota cryani, the tiny insect was named by entomologist Dawn Flynn from specimens collected in Bolivia. Naming a leafhopper after Cryan was an appropriate choice. He is an insect specialist and he has discovery of new species himself. “Finding out that my colleague intended to name a species of leafhopper for me was deeply moving,” says Cryan, particularly because he has known Flynn for decades as part of a small group of researchers specializing in the study of these insects.

The genus to which the Cryan leafhopper belongs, Cladonota, is one of the best known. Species of this leafhopper genus, Cryan says, “are entomologically famous for resembling twigs or peeling bark.” It’s a form of camouflage, all centered around a particular appendage near the front of the body called the pronotum. In some species, Cryan notes, the pronotum looks like a thorn or some other part of a plant. In other species, the pronotum has evolved to make leafhoppers look like ants or wasps that predators would like to avoid. Then again, says Cryan, “there are many species whose fantastic shapes are so bizarre that they defy credible explanation.” And just as these insects use the pronotum to differentiate themselves, so do entomologists.

Cladonota cryani, for its part, has a pronotum that resembles a broken twig. The appendage points backwards on the insect’s body, helping the small arthropod blend into its surroundings and also be recognized by other members of its species. So far, only the male of the species is known. Future explorations — in the field and in museums — will likely allow entomologists like Cryan and Flynn to learn even more. Individually and together, scientists have worked for years to better understand these insects, Cryan notes, “so the fact that Flynn thought of honoring me with a leafhopper species surname was really meaningful to me.”