A recent article published in the journal Deutsche Entomologische Zeitschrift points out that five parasitic moths discovered in India are different enough from their cousins to constitute a separate species group. More than 80% of this tribe of wasps are yet to be discovered and perfecting their taxonomy can go a long way in classifying future discoveries.
The team of researchers led by Veenakumari Kamalanathan, from the National Bureau of Agricultural Insect Resources, Bangalore, collected insects belonging to a “tribe” of parasitic wasps called Baeini. This tribe is characterised by its preferred host – spider eggs. Baeini spiders are endoparasitoids – meaning they live inside another animal (here, a spider egg) and ultimately kill it. The wasps are so widely spread that they are noted for their role in controlling spider populations.
Within the Baeini tribe, a genus (a narrower level of classification such as the ‘Homo’ in ‘Homo sapiens’) of wasps exclusively parasitise eggs of spiders living in leaf litter and vegetation. This genus is called Idris. The Idris wasps evolved with their eight-legged hosts to be just big enough (1-2mm) to be suited to medium-sized eggs. Also, they evolved small wings that allow them to slip through the silk walls of the spiders’ egg sacs.
The Idris genus is expected to include thousands of species (the final level of classification such as the ‘sapiens’ in ‘Homosapiens’) scattered all around the world, but only 154 have been discovered so far. Twenty-four of these are in the entomological paradise that is subtropical India.
It is while studying samples of different Idris species that Kamalanathan and his team found five that stood out from the rest. These five were distinct enough to, according to them, warrant a separate subgroup. They named this subgroup ‘adikeshavus’, which in Sanskrit translates to ‘first one to have long hair’. The scientists are referring to the unique long hair-like cilia found on the margins of these wasps’ wings.
Taxonomy, the rather tedious science of classifying different types of life, allows us to understand living organisms much better. Organisms can be looked at in terms of how similar they are to each other and we can make more educated guesses about how similar organisms function and in what manner they evolved.
An elaborate yet systematic classification system will make sure we can target the most precise group of organisms in different scenarios – whether for utility or conservation purposes. For example, perhaps we can design a pesticide that eradicates members of only the group of insects that cause disease and not needlessly harm other similar insects. Or we can substitute a chemical pesticide with a very specific parasitic insect that feeds on a harmful pest.
In case of the Idris wasps, a good taxonomy will facilitate faster and more useful organisation of the hundreds of species that will continue to be discovered in the years to come. This is the taxonomy of the newly discovered wasp species versus that of human beings.