- Researchers have described a new species of praying mantis from Brazil’s Atlantic Forest, adding to the 250 known mantis species native to the country.
- The new species, Vates phoenix, belongs to a genus previously only known to occur in the Amazon.
- The researchers named it in honor of the National Museum of Brazil, which caught fire in September of 2018, leading to the destruction of 20 million items, including part of the entomological collection.
- Months earlier, the researchers had borrowed mantis specimens from that very collection to help them confirm that they indeed had a new species.
Of the 2,500 mantis species in the world, a tenth are found in Brazil, more than in any other country. And now researchers have added a new one to this list: Vates phoenix, the first species in the genus to be found in the Atlantic Rainforest. They had only previously been observed in the Amazon.
The discovery — and the years of study needed to prove that it was in fact a new praying mantis species — was made by a group of biologists from Projeto Mantis in Rio de Janeiro, supported by the National Geographic Society and with help from Peruvian scientist Julio Rivera, one of the world’s leading mantis specialists.
The first time that Brazilian researchers came across V. phoenix was in 2016. They found two male individuals on an expedition through the Atlantic Rainforest in the municipality of Valença in inland Rio de Janeiro state. Biologists Leonardo Lanna and João Felipe Herculano were unable to identify them, so they sought help from Rivera, who suspected that they might have a new species on their hands.
To compare, analyze and create a possible description of the discovery, the researchers in 2017 borrowed a box of 13 mantises from the Vates genus from the National Museum of Brazil. (Months later, in September 2018, a fire destroyed the majority of the museum’s collection: 20 million items, among them 5 million insects from the entomological catalog.)
From among the borrowed mantises, there was only one female specimen. It had been collected in May 1935 in the Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden. “However, the creature was old and had not been correctly set with some important characteristics for a detailed description hidden from sight,” the researchers said.
Then a little help came from destiny in 2018. “While she was walking through the grove in the Botanical Garden, our instructor Malu spotted a mantis crossing the road,” the researchers said. “When she called us to take a look, we could hardly believe it: it was precisely the new species that we had been describing, and, this time, it was female. In the same month of May, at the same locale and 83 years later, the female Vates phoenix reappeared.”
After four years of research, the scientific description of the new species was finally released in January 2020, in an article published in the European Journal of Taxonomy.
Vates phoenix: An homage to the National Museum
The new mantis species, endemic to the Atlantic Rainforest, can be observed in the states of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo at altitudes up to 600 meters (1,970 feet).
The species has a small crown and a camouflage that makes it nearly invisible among green leaves and tree branches.
“Though there are registers of the species in various locales, we know little about its habitat, that is, where it can be found in the forest,” the researchers said. “Of all the genera previously observed by our team, this is the only one that we never saw in its natural environment.
“Where to find a wild Vates phoenix remains a mystery,” they added. “We believe that they may have a preference for the tree canopies, far from our eyes … and searches.”
The species name pays homage to the National Museum of Brazil. The mythical phoenix was a bird that died in flames and was reborn from its own ashes.
“For us and many researchers, the National Museum represents biological and scientific history in Brazil,” Lanna said. “The fire was a mark that forever extinguished part of this history. Since some of the specimens used to describe this species came from the museum, it was clear that the name should pay this homage. This whole collection, this species included, has the museum as its final destination. The species represents the rebirth of the praying mantis collection.”
Predator and prey
Praying mantises get their name from their characteristic pose, especially the larger ones, in which they press their front legs together almost as though in supplication. “In almost every language, its name refers to something religious or spiritual. It’s an insect that’s full of symbolism,” Lanna said.
He notes that praying mantises are among the largest predatory insects, feeding on smaller creatures, including those considered pests. At the same time, they’re also prey for larger animals like birds and amphibians. “The mantis is part of the life cycle of a healthy forest and does not adapt well to especially urbanized settings. It normally lives in green parks inside cities,” Lanna said.
He said more in-depth studies of mantises could open a treasure trove of discoveries. “We know, for instance, that there’s a Chinese species able to ingest highly poisonous lizards without having any problems – its organism absorbs the lizard’s nutrients and expels the poison in its feces. This mechanism could possibly serve studies on new molecules for the pharmaceutical industry,” Lanna said.
Rivera, J., Herculano, J. F., Lanna, L. M., Cavalcante, S., & Teixeira, M. L. F. (2020). A new species and first record of Vates Burmeister, 1838 from the Atlantic Rainforest (Mantodea: Vatinae). European Journal of Taxonomy, (598), 1-25. doi:10.5852/ejt.2020.598
This article was originally published at Conexão Planeta on Feb. 20, 2020.