Two New Bug Species Have All-Pink Females

The leaf-like katydids, native to northern Borneo, sport dramatically different colour differences between sexes.

By Mary Bates
pink katydid
This newfound female katydid resembles a leaf in its native Bornean habitat.
Photograph by Peter Kirk

Meet Malaysia's new pink ladies: Two species of katydid whose females sport distinctly rosy hues.

While the males of the new species are a uniform green colour, the females are standouts in red and pink. Not only that, both sexes look just like leaves, with distinctive veins and leaf-like lobes on their legs.

The insects, which live in northern Borneo (map), are especially unusual because one of them was identified based on photographs alone.

In 2013, a friend showed George Beccaloni pictures of a spectacularly coloured katydid—a type of grasshopper-like insect—that Beccaloni couldn’t identify. Beccaloni sent them to Sigfrid Ingrisch, an expert on Asian katydids.

“He was reluctant to name and describe it because it’s not good practice to describe new species based only on photos,” says Beccaloni, a zoologist at London's Natural History Museum. “Often you need to look at microscopic characteristics, things that don’t show up in photos, to differentiate species.”

The male katydids are green, likely because they're more active in the forest in search of females, and need to blend into the leaves.
Photograph by Paul Bertner

But in this case, the scientists felt confident naming the insect as a new species, Eulophophyllum kirki, since the veins of its wings were clearly visible and unlike any other known species. Wing veins are often used to tell katydid species apart.

Colorful Camouflage

The team also examined specimens of katydids collected from a 1993 expedition to Borneo and kept in a German museum collection. They decided that these specimens, along with photos they found on the Internet, represented a second new species of katydid, E. lobulatum.

In a recent study in the Journal of Orthoptera Research, Beccaloni and his colleagues classified both bugs in the genus Eulophophyllum, which was previously known from a single female collected in North Borneo almost a hundred years ago.

The two new species differ from the previously known specimen in the pink colour of the females, the pattern of veins on the wings, and the presence of large, leaf-like expansions of their hind legs.

It's likely the newfound katydids aren’t the same colour because they have different reasons for camouflage.

“The females of the new species almost certainly hide and maybe feed on young, red leaves,” says Beccaloni. “It’s possible the males evolved green camouflage so they can hide in more places while they are roaming around looking for females.”

Getting the Whole Picture

Other experts aren't as confident about calling one of the insects a new species based on photographs.

“You can identify a species based on a photo, but you cannot describe and name a species based on this,” says David Rentz, a former chief research scientist at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation in Canberra, Australia. “You have to have the item in hand.”

Independent orthopterist Rob Felix agrees: "Species descriptions should always be done based on a reference you can hold in your hand and re-examine."

But, he adds, "the authors had very good reasons to describe the one species based on photos alone. By describing it at this moment with only a photograph, they hoped to generate publicity so authorities become aware of the importance of collecting some specimens.

And since the new katydids' Bornean habitat is "under severe threat" due to logging for oil palm plantations and timber, "any knowledge about the area’s inhabitants might help conservation efforts," Felix says.

Beccaloni notes that other new species have been discovered via the many photos of insects and other animals on the Internet.

“It’s actually very useful for taxonomists to search through [photography] sites looking for animals you might be interested in to find new species.”

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