Murray State Biology Professor And Young Daughter Discover New Insect Species

Jun 26, 2019

Laura Sullivan-Beckers and Sylvie in her spider lab.
Credit Sydni Anderson

A Murray State University biology professor has named a new insect species after her daughter, who helped make the discovery while they were planting flowers in their backyard. Sydni Anderson spoke with Laura Sullivan-Beckers and her five-year-old daughter Sylvie about the little green treehopper species they’ve named “Hebetica sylviae.”

Beckers said in summer 2016, Sylvie, then-two-years-old, was helping plant wildflowers in a flower bed in their backyard when she accidentally over-watered the bed. 

That’s when Beckers noticed insects floating in the standing water. “I noticed all of these treehopper dead bodies floating on top and some of them I recognized but a lot of them I didn’t and there were hundreds of them, just ‘oh my gosh,’” she said. 

Credit Murray State University

She described the treehopper as looking like a raindrop. She said the species is in the raindrop genera. Beckers and her daughter collected more than a thousand treehoppers over the summer, including about 60 or 70 of the new species. Remarking on the discovery in a release sent by Murray State University, Beckers said, “It’s true that science involves luck and serendipity. I was at the right place at the right time with the perfect field assistant.”

Beckers said wasps will sting and bury treehoppers in the soil for their larvae to feed upon. She noticed, in addition to hundreds of treehoppers in the soil were also hundreds of wasp larvae. 

She said the difference between Hebetica sylviae and other treehoppers is technical. 

She showed the specimen to her PhD advisor Rex Cocroft who is a treehopper specialist. He said he’d seen something similar in South or Central America, but had never seen any north of that region. “He said either it’s a new species or it’s the same one and it’s just migrated really far north,” Beckers said. 

Beckers then sent the specimen to USDA research entomologist Stuart McKamey. He conducted detailed morphological work, such comparing species wing venation. “So he was getting specimens borrowed from museums in London and all sorts of places to confirm that it wasn’t a Central American species, that it was, in fact, a different, unnamed species.” 

 

Beckers and McKamey will publish the description of the Hebetica sylviae in the July issue of the scientific journal ‘Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington’. 

As for what’s next, Beckers wants to study the insect’s behavioral biology and hopes to find living specimen. “I’ve never seen them alive. I’ve been trying to find them alive ever since this discovery. But I’m pretty sure they live at the top of a 60-foot-tall oak tree. So I need somebody with a cherry picker to come help me get me up to the top of the tree so that I can actually learn about them alive and not just dead,” she said. 

As for Sylvie, she considers herself a “half-scientist.” Her favorite bugs are spiders and butterflies and she likes treehoppers only “a teensy bit.”