Just three millimetres long, Leptodrepana ninae flits about tropical Costa Rica with iridescent wings that would make a cathedral’s stained-glass windows look drab by comparison. Until this spring, the tiny parasitoid wasp was so low-profile, it lacked even a name.
Now, its etymology is linked inextricably to Western zoologist Nina Zitani.
L. ninae is the eighth insect named in honour of Zitani, a renowned entomologist and professor of biology who is also curator of Western’s Zoological Collections.
Zitani herself has discovered and named 15 insect species from Costa Rica and is a mentor to young entomologists.
“It’s customary in my field – once a person has published, discovered and named a new species – to name other new species after someone else in recognition of the work that person has done,” said Zitani, who has made more than 20 expeditions to the Amazon. “It’s honorary.”
In this instance, L. ninae was discovered, examined, identified and named by Samin D. Dadelahi, who was a master’s student mentored by Zitani when the latter was completing her doctorate from the University of Wyoming.
The naming of 24 new species of parasitoid wasps in Costa Rica – their differences so minute as to be noticeable only to their own kind or to a trained entomologist – is part of a taxonomic study conducted by Dadelahi and co-authors Scott R. Shaw, Helmuth Aguirre and Luis Felipe V. de Almeida.
In explaining the taxonomy of L. ninae, they wrote, “This species is a patronym in honour of Nina Michelle Zitani for her invaluable aid and advice in all matters entomological.”
Of an estimated nine million species on Earth, only about 1.8 million of those are named. “And (for) many of those, that’s all we have – a name. We don’t know its lifecycle or its habitat,” Zitani noted.
The difference between the known and unknown species numbers means there’s an enormous blank catalogue of knowledge, needing to be filled. This naming is an essential first step towards understanding more about them and their place in the world, Zitani said.
But the L. ninae wasp and its 23 newly named cousins a have significance well beyond the fact they officially exist.
“This is part of the quest to understand biodiversity on Earth,” she said.
Some of the richest ecological areas in the world are in the neotropics, a zone teeming with life and vulnerable to degradation.
And with climate change, pollution, loss of habitat and rainforest destruction, there’s untold damage being done to species that could be the source of new foods or medicines or are intrinsically important beyond whatever usefulness humans might ascribe to them.
The interconnectedness of it all makes biodiversity and conservation not just a regional issue, but a global one; not just an abstraction, but a matter of survival, she said.
“We are causing species to go extinct before we even know their names.”