The Leaf Insect That Has Waited 125 Years to Be Discovered

The Leaf Insect That Has Waited 125 Years to Be Discovered

Phyllium Regina is a new species for science that has been described in 2019 thanks to a female who gathered in 1896 in Indonesia. It is the only specimen that is known of this species and represents a small sample of unidentified historical material that is preserved in the Entomology Collection National Museum of Natural Sciences (MNCN-CSIC).

Leaf insects simulate leaf movement when there is wind, swinging back and forth when they walk. They masterfully imitate the leaves of their nutritional plants and adopt positions that make them go unnoticed; Even eggs resemble the seeds of vegetables on which they live. These walking leaves, as they are popularly known, are masters of camouflage, literally and figuratively.

When the German scientist Frank Henneman, a specialist in plasmids, visited our collection in 2007, he photographed a good number of entomological boxes of this group of insects. Among them was a leaf insect collected on Obi Island, in the Northern Moluccas (Indonesia), which caught his attention.

Although we do not have more data on the specimen, its presence in the Museum is not strange, since Ignacio Bolívar, who would be appointed a director of the MNCN in 1901, was an orthopedic specialist, a group that includes the Phasmida (stick insects and insects sheet). Bolívar is considered a leading scientist in this group for having described many new taxa between the end of the 19th century and the first third of the 20th century. Precisely, orthopteroids have a great weight in the MNCN Entomology Collection, which stands out for the high number of type specimens of this group and for its great worldwide representation. This is due to the exchanges that Bolivar had with other specialists of the time and for the copies he received after studying the collections of other museums.

Twelve years after the visit of the German entomologist, a systematic study of the Phyllium genus, carried out with other colleagues, has allowed us to discover a new species among the material guarded in the MNCN. That gives an idea of ​​how well hundreds of thousands of species are camouflaged that remain hidden in natural history museums around the world until a taxonomist arrives and discovers them. It must also be said that the description of the species has been made possible thanks to work carried out by the Entomology Collection staff, in this case, the images requested by the researchers, without which they could not have made the description.

The new species, Phyllium (Comptaphyllium) Regina n. Sp. has been described in an article published in 2019, taking as reference the female found in the collection, which has become the holotype of this species. It is endemic to Wallacea, the biogeographic region that is located in an intermediate zone between Asia and Oceania, from which it is separated by two deep-sea trenches. This region is one of the hot spots of biodiversity ( Hotspots ) in the world, as it has a large number of endemic species of plants and animals.

When describing Phyllium Regina and reviewing their closest relatives, P. caudatum and P. Riedel , researchers have observed that these three species of leaf insects share a unique set of characteristics that distinguishes them from the rest of the members of the genus Phyllium, which It has led them to define a new subgenus Phyllium (Comptaphyllium) subgenre. Nov.

A curious anecdote of this specimen is that it was exhibited in the exhibition “Illustrated Natures. The van Berkhey collection ”held in 2014 at the MNCN. It accompanied a beautiful sheet of an insect leaf of the German naturalist August Johann Rösel von Rosenhof (1705-1759). Rösel came from a family in which his grandfather and uncle were painters of animals and natural scenes, and his father was a copper engraver, which encouraged his skill in art and science, which culminated in his work “Der monatlich herausgegebenen Insecten-Belustigung.” His insect illustrations have served as a reference to many scientists. The illuminated chalcography that was displayed next to the leaf insect was mistakenly classified as Locusta indica. In the sheet that is kept in the file, said the name does not appear because it has been cut, and the Rösel signature has also disappeared. All this happened after the subtraction in 1985 of the plates of the van Berkhey collection of the MNCN Archive, which fortunately could be recovered.

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