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24 New Wasp Species Mummify Their Prey

Twenty-four new species of wasp that make mummies out of their prey have been discovered in the cloud forests of Ecuador, a new study says.  The parasitic Aleiodes wasps deposit their eggs inside a caterpillar, and when the babies hatch, they desiccate them from the inside—which is “pretty unusual” for wasps, said study co-author Scott Shaw, an entomologist...

Twenty-four new species of wasp that make mummies out of their prey have been discovered in the cloud forests of Ecuador, a new study says. 

The parasitic Aleiodes wasps deposit their eggs inside a caterpillar, and when the babies hatch, they desiccate them from the inside—which is “pretty unusual” for wasps, said study co-author Scott Shaw, an entomologist at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. (Also see “Nearly 200 New Species of Parasitic Wasps Discovered in Costa Rica.”)

The Shakira wasp, Aleiodes shakirae, with a head of a pin (gold dot) for scale. Photograph by Eduardo Shimbori

Shaw and a group of students from the University of Wyoming identified the new wasp species during recent expeditions to northern Ecuador’s Yanayacu Biological Station.

For 16 of these 24 wasps, the team identified the caterpillar species upon which they prey, according to the study, published April 28 in the journal Zookeys

Mummy Dearest

Found worldwide, wasps in the genus Aleiodes are obligate parasites, meaning they rely on another species to complete their life cycle.

Once a female Aleiodes wasp finds a caterpillar host, she injects an egg into its body. At first, the caterpillar doesn’t even seem to notice. As the egg develops into a larva, however, it consumes the caterpillar from the inside out, making it shrink and become discolored. Further development inside the caterpillar hardens its surface and causes it to shrivel, creating the mummy-like appearance.

The larvae pupates inside the husk of its host, eventually cutting a hole in the back of the mummy, from which it emerges as an adult wasp.

The whole process takes several months from the initial injection of the egg to the final emergence of the adult.

A photo of a bent mummified caterpillar parasitized by the Shakira wasp.

A caterpillar mummified by the Shakira wasp. Photograph by Eduardo Shimbori

The larvae then chews a hole in the neck of the caterpillar and glues the caterpillar down to a flat surface. (See “Pictures: Wasps Turn Ladybugs Into Flailing ‘Zombies.'”)

Claim to Fame

Joseph Fortier, an entomologist and former professor at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, said that with thousands of known species of parasitic wasps, “it’s not surprising that you might find 24 new species at one time.”

A photo of a golden yellow wasp, named after Jimmy Fallon.
A close-up of the Jimmy Fallon wasp, Aleiodes falloni. Photograph by Eduardo Shimbori

Parasitic wasps are “really hard to find and study,” added Fortier, who wasn’t involved in the new study. (Watch a video of parasitic wasps at work.)

The wasps are notable for another reason: Several of them are named after celebrities, including Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon, Ellen DeGeneres, and Shakira. Study co-author Shaw named the most colorful species after his wife, Marilyn.

“These wasps play a really important role in forest ecology,” Shaw said—by controlling levels of caterpillars, which are the forest’s major herbivores.

“I hope these names help people recognize their importance.”

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Carrie Arnold
Carrie is a freelance science writer living in Virginia. When she's not writing about cool critters, she's spending time outside, drinking coffee, or knitting. You can visit her website at http://www.carriearnold.com