New Insect Species Identified From Flickr Photos

By Max Eddy on August 10, 2012 7:47 PM EDT

Green Lacewing
This green lacewing is an entirely new species, discovered in a set of Flickr photos. (Photo: Species ID / Guek)

Shaun Winterton, an insect biosystematist with the California Department of Food and Agriculture, was flipping through insect photos on Flickr when he happened across the photographic work of Hock Ping Guek. Guek, who lives in Malaysia, had posted images of an unidentified lacewing he'd come across in a nearby forest which Winterton soon realized was of an entirely new species.

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The paper chronicling their discovery, and the year-long journey to prove the lacewing's uniqueness, was published this week in the journal Zookeys. Winterton notes that the green lacewing family is already incredibly diverse, with over 1,200 species already identified. Despite this, Winterton didn't recognize the insect when he saw it online.

The lacewing Guek had photographed in May 2011 was quite distinctive. Beneath long antenna sat its bulbous, iridescent eyes in front of a turquoise thorax supported by six translucent legs. Its thin, green abdomen was flanked by a pair of large, shimmering wings with distinctive black spots on each. Inside each of these irregular patches were flecks that shone like mother of pearl.

After sending out Guek's photographs to other scientists, Winterton began to believe that the insect was indeed unclassified. However, photos alone weren't sufficient to fully analyze the creature. For that, Winterton would need a living sample.

He contacted Guek, who had let the star of his original photographs go. About a year later on January 27 2012, Guek managed to catch another lacewing which he photographed and sent to Winterton.

Though it may have never been previously recognized as a species, the Guek's lacewing wasn't entirely new to science. With the sample now in hand, Winterton writes that a second lacewing was found in the entomology collection at London's Natural History Museum. Apparently, passing completely unnoticed.

With the specimens preserved and described, Winterton decided to name the lacewing after his daughter, Jade. Thus, Semachrysa jade.

The role of the Internet in fomenting scientific discovery shouldn't be too surprising, considering that early versions were conceived as a means to share information between universities. More recently, two so-called "citizen scientists" helped identify alien planets through the Planet Hunters website. However, inadvertent online discoveries are not entirely unheard of either. In 2005, the remains of an ancient city were discovered on Google Maps.

Perhaps fitting for a discovery made thanks to the Internet, Winterton writes that drafting the description of the new species was done using, "internet cloud based technology." That is to say, Google Docs. 

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