'Whopper' wasp genus named after Alfred Russel Wallace

07 November 2013

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Museum entomologist honours eminent naturalist often overshadowed by Darwin.

A new wasp genus discovered on the island of Borneo has been named Wallaceaphytis to honour Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer of the theory of evolution by natural selection.

Today marks the centenary of Wallace's death and the culmination of a year of special events at the Museum to celebrate his life and work.

Borneo connection

Wallace himself collected many insects on Borneo that helped him come to conclusions about natural selection at the same time as Darwin.

Wallace spent more than a year on Borneo between 1854-56, describing thousands of new insect species and collecting a large number of moths using light traps in an old coal mine. One of his discoveries, the Rajah Brooke’s birdwing butterfly, is now a protected species and the national butterfly of Malaysia.

There is still a wide diversity of undiscovered plants and animals on Borneo, which is known as a biodiversity hotspot. Despite spending so much time there, Wallace only traced a small circle into the dense jungle, reaching just 70 miles inland. 

The new wasp genus was discovered from a single female wasp captured among thousands of other insects.

Museum entomologist Dr Andrew Polaszek collected the wasp as part of a two-month collecting expedition with colleagues from the Museum and local scientists. 

He said that that when he took a close look at the insect back in the lab he immediately recognised it as unique as it was ‘clearly distinct’ from anything he had seen before.

The wasp had a combination of characteristics not seen in any similar genera, and DNA analysis confirmed it as something new to science.

Weird wasp
Catching wasp

Dr Andrew Polaszek collecting the Wallace wasp on Borneo.

Wallaceaphytis is a parasitoid wasp, meaning it lays its eggs inside other insects and spiders. These insects are often very small, sometimes less than a fifth of a millimetre in length. The new wasp is just under a millimetre, making it ‘a bit of a whopper’ in the parasitoid wasp world.

Parasitoid wasps are found the world over, including in England, where they tend to lay their eggs in aphids.

Watch the video at the top of the page to learn more about the Wallace wasp.

‘There’s still this remarkable hidden biodiversity in Borneo as well as right under our noses, here in England,’ said Polaszek. He is heading back to Borneo next week to collect more insects from the opposite side of the island.

Celebrating Wallace

The description of the new wasp genus is published today in the Journal of Natural History where Wallace published some famous works. Today also marks 100 years since Wallace’s death.

The Museum has been celebrating Wallace’s life and work all this year to mark the centenary. ‘I think it’s a nice way to round off Wallace100 events at the Museum,’ Polaszek said.

Dr Polaszek will be speaking at a Nature Live event today at 14.30 about Wallace's adventures in Borneo, which will be streamed live online.

There will also be free play about Wallace by Welsh theatre company Theatr na nÓg performed today in the Flett Lecture Theatre at 15.00.

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