Rare Metallic-Looking Insect Found in Uganda

It 'shows there is still so much more of the world to discover,' scientist says.

A new species of leafhopper found in Uganda
A new species of leafhopper.

Alvin Helden / Anglia Ruskin University

A metallic-looking insect was recently discovered in a rainforest in western Uganda. The leafhopper species is so rare, its closest relative was last spotted more than 50 years ago.

Alvin Helden of Anglia Ruskin University in the United Kingdom discovered the insect while on a field expedition with students in Kibale National Park in western Uganda. He named the new leafhopper Phlogis kibalensis.

Several years ago, Helden received permission from Ugandan authorities to collect some insect species, including leafhoppers, with the goal of creating a list of species for the national park. In 2018, he was collecting some insects with a sweep net, when he discovered one that he says was “particularly unusual.”

When he first spotted it, he says he had no idea it was a new species.

“I did realise that it was an unusual looking leafhopper, unlike any other species that I had found before. So I knew it was really interesting. It was only later, back in the U.K., as I started to identify the specimens, that I had found that I realised that it had not been found before,” Helden tells Treehugger.

He discovered that it belongs to a genus for which only two other specimens have ever been collected—one in 1969 in the Central African Republic and one in Cameroon.

“The specimen I collected is a different, but closely related species to the previous specimens. I have described this new species and named it after the national park where I found it.”

The findings were published in the journal Zootaxa.

Metallic and Hunchbacked

Leafhoppers are related to cicadas but are much smaller. They often feed on plant sap and can be brightly colored or dull, where they blend into their surroundings. Spiders, beetles, parasitic wasps, and birds all can prey on leafhoppers.

Apart from being so rare, what makes the new discovery so unusual or interesting is mostly in the eye of the specialist, Helden says.

“It looks like a leafhopper but it is unusual—it is rather hunchbacked and looks a bit metallic (very unusual for leafhoppers). Then the thing which makes it clear that this is a new species is the male reproductive organs,” he says.

Most insects have male reproductive structures which are uniquely shaped so that each species is different, Helden explains. This is critical for mating and is one of the ways that insects mate with others of their own species.

“This was true for Phlogis kibalensis too. The reason I knew it was a new species was that its male reproductive structures were similar, but clearly different from the previously discovered species of this genus (Phlogis mirabilis).”

Still So Much to Discover

Helden has been leading field trips for students to the Kibale National Park since 2015.  On these expeditions, he has been documenting the insects that live in the park and has created picture guides to the park’s butterflies, hawk moths, and tortoise beetles. The guides, he says, are a gift to the people of Uganda, who have been so hospitable to the researchers and students on their trips.

This was the first time Helden found a new species on one of the expeditions. He is excited about what he says is a once-in-a-lifetime achievement.

“One of the joys of being a scientist is to discover new things, and the thing that really struck me was how exciting it was to know that I was the first person ever to recognise this species. Looking down the microscope, I knew I was seeing something that no other human being had ever seen. That is a real privilege that few people ever have,” Helden says.

“It was particularly special for me personally, as it was the first new species I have discovered myself.”

There’s a lot to learn about this particular species, says Helden, who points out it’s sad that other species may go extinct before they are ever discovered.

“In terms of importance, in itself it is merely a new discovery that adds to our knowledge of the insect world. With over one million species of insect already known, in itself it is just one more species,” he says.

“However, each species is unique and fascinating and has its own life story, and shows there is still so much more of the world to discover. So I think perhaps the most important aspect of this discovery is that it can give us that sense of discovery and that it encourages others to want to find out more, and to care for the wonderful world we share.”

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  1. Alvin Helden of Anglia Ruskin University in the U.K.

  2. Missouri Department of Conservation, "Leafhoppers."