Murray State assistant professor in the biology department, discovered a new insect while planting with his daughter. Laura Sullivan-Beckers is a behavioral ecologist who studies the communication and mating behaviors of leafhoppers and spiders.
“She was two years old at the time, so when I let her water the soil she went a little too far and finally flooded the flowerbed,” Beckers said.
Beckers noticed that small insects had floated on the surface of the water.
“I did my doctoral research with this group of insects, the leafhoppers (Family Membracidae) and I knew they were plant insects and did not live underground,” Beckers said.
After this first sighting, Beckers began a months-long investigation. Beckers dug the entire flower bed and examined it for leafhoppers. She then resampled the soil every day for eight weeks. In the end, she recovered hundreds of leafhoppers representing 24 different species.
She recognized many species from her earlier work. She inquired with her thesis supervisor Rex Cocroft about those she did not recognize. He has identified them almost all.
A bright green teardrop insect surprised him. He had seen similar leafhoppers, but only in Central America.
When Cocroft noticed that Beckers Insect was an unusual find in the United States, he recommended that he contact Stu McKamey, an insect specialist in the United States Department of Agriculture.
Beckers sent several specimens to McKamey. For several months, he made a detailed comparison of these insects with similar insects found in museums around the world.
McKamey found unique traits in these insects. This species was not yet known to the scientific community.
In 2019, Beckers and McKamey published an article on this new species. This essay presented the discovery of insects, their unique traits, and their taxonomic relationship to other insects.
Beckers and McKamey also officially named the insect, Hebetica sylviae, after Beckers’ daughter Sylvie.
Beckers has been searching for live specimens of this insect since her initial discovery in 2016. When she discovered the insects, burrowing wasps were using them to feed their larvae.
James Kindt, a chemistry professor at Emory University, found live insects in Atlanta in the summer of 2020. He sent Beckers three female specimens, but she couldn’t learn much.
Beckers found the insects alive in Murray in the summer of 2021 and is now working to understand their biology.
“Naturally, I want to know everything about the types of signals they use to communicate,” Beckers said. “Are both men and women reporting? And the juveniles? What does the leafhopper courtship display look like? How often do they mate?
Beckers said last week that she has made great strides in recording and understanding how they communicate. She said they have a rich suite of vibrational signals that they use to navigate their complex mating lives.
Beckers also needs to find out some basic information about the life of this new species. She strives to answer questions such as how long they live, what host plants they live on, and where they live.
“Much of this information I’ll put together myself, but mapping its distribution would take longer than is realistically possible for a working mom,” Beckers said.
Citizen scientists can help achieve the goal of determining the geographic range of this species. Beckers found the host plant, which is white mulberry (Morus alba). This tree is not native to the United States. It was introduced in the 1600s and is now widely used.
Beckers suspects that the insects originally lived on native mulberry (Morus rubra), but moved on when white mulberry was introduced.
Once Beckers discovered the insects on white mulberry trees, she realized they were actually quite common.
Beckers reached out to friends and colleagues across the United States and Canada to ask them to be on the lookout for this new insect.
“I hope that by educating the public and enough people interested in insects, the leafhopper sightings will fill this gap in our current knowledge,” Beckers said.
So far, this species has been found in Murray, Kentucky and Atlanta, Georgia. Beckers said if Murray State News readers have family outside of the immediate area, it would be helpful to share this story with them.
Beckers started a project with iNaturalist, an online database where people can share observations of the natural world. iNaturalist will alert Beckers whenever someone posts a photo of treehoppers. This database also preserves location information on uploaded photos, making it ideal for mapping.
Beckers used a free version of an app called Picture This to learn how to identify mulberry trees. All you have to do is take a photo and it will identify a plant for you. Beckers said this app reliably identifies different types of mulberry trees.
If you see a treehopper, you can take a photo and upload it to https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/hunt-for-new-raindrop-treehopper.