A species of wasp discovered in Thailand has been named for evil spirits invented by J. K. Rowling in her Harry Potter books. In the series, Dementors are soulless beings that suck away the happiness and intelligence of their victims.
The new wasp, Ampulex dementor, similarly robs its victims of their senses and turns them into zombies. The dementor wasp hunts cockroaches, which they sting in the abdomen with a neurotoxin. The cockroach is still able to move, but it is unable to direct its limbs, making it easy for the wasp to eat.
The wasp also has another sneaky tactic: it disguises itself as an ant. By imitating the movements of an ant, the dementor wasp may be able to hunt more effectively.
The recently described wasp was named at the Museum für Naturkunde, a natural history museum, in Berlin. The museum polled visitors to choose their favorite name among several options, which also included “Ampulex bicolor” (referring to its distinctive two-tone coloring) and “Ampulex mon” (referring to the Mon people, one of the earliest known groups of people in Thailand). Given the popularity of the Harry Potter books, it’s not very surprising that the literary reference won.
Researchers hope this participatory approach to naming will help the public engage more with current biology. Their method is described in the public-access journal Plos One.
This species of wasp isn’t the only thing that turns its victims into zombie-like creatures. There’s a fungus that preys on ants, and a virus can control gypsy moth caterpillars to further spread the infection.
The dementor wasp is featured in a report released yesterday from WWF that highlights the biodiversity of the Mekong Region, which includes Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. In this region, 139 new species were described in 2014 alone, but many of these discoveries are also threatened. Dams and and hydropower projects along the Mekong River could be particularly disruptive to this region’s ecosystems. Hopefully greater interest in the region’s amazing creatures, both appealing and repulsive, will help renew efforts to protect them.