Two weeks ago, a group of scientists revealed that they had discovered over 200 species of parasitic wasps in Costa Rica. Primarily based in the genus Apanteles, these killer wasps are known for injecting their eggs into the bodies of caterpillars. The eggs, which are protected by a virus also injected by the mother wasp into the host, then hatch and eat their caterpillar host alive. The researchers involved in the study say they plan to discover another 1,000 species of the wasps in the next several years—an estimate that shatters the number of these creatures previously thought to exist.
One reason why the wasps had never been discovered and categorized until now is the unique similarities in their genetic code. Scientists say the methods used to distinguish the different species of wasps include a kind of genetic bar-coding used to analyze and spot the differences in short segments of the wasps’ DNA. While many of the various species exhibited similarities, a primary distinguishing factor was their inability to mate with each other due to genetic differences, a key which helped researchers separate the wasps into different species.
Researchers have been collecting wasps and caterpillars from the same conservation area of Costa Rica for years, and they predict that over 15,000 species of caterpillars and 20,000 of parasitic wasps inhabit the area, making it a veritable cornucopia of insect research.
Researcher Daniel Janzen has collected and studied caterpillars in the area for 36 years, and in 1989, he started to train local Costa Ricans how to catch samples of the bugs. His operation now includes 34 locally trained research assistants, who together have caught over a half million caterpillars. The training program has strengthened relations between locals and the conservationists, while also providing Janzen and his team with an insiders’ edge on collecting the insects.