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‘Social’ creatures — with coloring intended to confuse — discovered as new species

In a forest in Madagascar, a group of “social” creatures gathered on an “inverted” nest. The winged animals had a unique coloring intended to cause confusion. This might have worked on predators, but it didn’t work on nearby scientists.

Researchers spotted the “unique” nest and its wasp inhabitants in Ambohitantely forest in 2022, according to a study published Nov. 29 in the Journal of Hymenoptera Research.

Intrigued, researchers captured three wasps and searched the area for more similar-looking nests, the study said. They took a closer look at the animals and realized they’d discovered a new species: Ropalidia jemmae, or Jemma’s social wasp.

Jemma’s social wasps are small insects with wings measuring about 0.3 inches in length, researchers said. Unlike their iconic black-and-yellow counterparts, these wasps are black and green.

Photos show Jemma’s social wasps. They have large brown eyes, transparent brownish wings and six green legs. Their bodies have several green patches and some yellow-brown bands. Small, silvery hairs cover their body.

Several views of Ropalidia jemmae, or Jemma’s social wasp, showing its full body (1 and 2), head (3) and upper body segment (4).
Several views of Ropalidia jemmae, or Jemma’s social wasp, showing its full body (1 and 2), head (3) and upper body segment (4).

Researchers described this unique coloring as a “local camouflage” intended both to blend in and to “cause visual confusion and break the expected body” shape.

But “the single most interesting feature” of Jemma’s social wasps isn’t their coloring, researchers said, it’s their nests.

The new species lives in “brittle” paper nests that have an “inverted” shape, the study said. Instead of opening outward, the nest opens toward the tree it’s attached to. The bottom of the nest, which faces outward, mimics the “rugged texture of the tree bark or the lichen.”

A set of pictures shows a Jemma’s social wasp nest in a lab. The nest appears to have a paper mache texture and several honey-comb-like holes where the insects would live.

The nest of Ropalidia jemmae, or Jemma’s social wasp, as seen in a lab.
The nest of Ropalidia jemmae, or Jemma’s social wasp, as seen in a lab.

The result of this “unique” architecture is “excellent visual nest concealment,” researchers said.

Photos show what this nest looks like on a tree. The greenish-brown nest is more raised than the surrounding lichen patches but has a very similar color.

The nest of Ropalidia jemmae, or Jemma’s social wasp, as seen in its natural habitat.
The nest of Ropalidia jemmae, or Jemma’s social wasp, as seen in its natural habitat.

Researchers said they named the new species after Jemma de Beer, who helped discover one of the wasp nests.

So far, Jemma’s social wasps have only been found in two nests within a small section of Ambohitantely forest, the study said. This forest is in central Madagascar and about 50 miles northwest of Antananarivo, the capital city.

The new species was identified by its coloring, body shape and nest structure, the study said. Researchers did not provide a DNA analysis of the new species.

The research team included Ozren Polašek and Len de Beer.

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