An Urban Backyard Observation in Mexico Spurs Description of New Tree Cricket Species!

Last month, in the Journal of Orthoptera Research, a new species of tree cricket (Subfamily Oecanthinae) was described: Neoxabea mexicana. The co-authors of the paper are Nancy Collins (@nan-cee) and Carlos Gerardo Velazco-Macias (@aztekium_tutor), and this new species description is the result of their collaboration after Nancy noticed an interesting tree cricket observation Carlos posted from his backyard in Monterrey, Mexico. Here’s their story.

A freelance biologist who often collaborates with his wife Liliana Ramírez-Freire (@biolily) on native bee monitoring, Carlos started out as a botanist focused on cacti, but says that “sometime around 2013 I discovered Naturalista Mexico, and everything changed for me. I have not been able to stop documenting the species around me.” This of course includes his yard (below), which he says is no more than about 30 square meters, both front and back, and where he and his family 

planted a variety of native wildflowers and some of them just showed up spontaneously. Our basic array of plants are: Ruellia simplex, Lantana camara, Cosmos suphureus, Asclepias curassavica and Helianthus annuus. We also have Croton ciliato-glandulosus, Ratibida columifera, Commelina erecta, among many others. It’s a really crowded garden, but we also added some dead wood logs and rocks and leaves as much bare ground as we can (for native bees of course).

Thus far Carlos and his family have documented nearly 700 species there (check out the Casa Carlos Aztekium Velazco project); including, of course, Neoxabea mexicana. But it took some time for the right one to come along. “As we started to document every organism we found in and around our garden, some organisms were totally unknown to us,” says Carlos.

On September 12th, 2018 I found a female tree cricket which I erroneously identified as Neoxabea bipunctata. Almost immediately Nancy Collins, who is an expert on tree crickets, said it could be an undescribed speces. She gave me precise instructions on how to identify the insect [and said a male individual was needed]. Unfortunately, we were not able to locate another individual so no more advances were made until October 9th, 2020, when my father (@jgvelasco / Thanks Dad!) found a new individual. This time it was a male - BINGO!


While Carlos has spent his professional life as a biologist, Nancy Collins (above) tells me she didn’t have a deep interest in insects until she turned fifty; and of course the animal that changed her life was a tree cricket. “A male Neoxabea bipunctata had chewed a hole in several leaves of a sunflower plant – each hole was the same size, same shape, and on the same spot of each leaf,” she explains.

He would stick his head through one of these holes, raise his wings that now blocked the hole, and would start singing. Indeed, his trilling was so loud that I was expecting to find a large insect, and was surprised to find one that was only an inch-long. Through my soon to be mentor, Dr. Thomas J. Walker, I learned he was using the leaf as a baffle in order to amplify his sound. After making some recordings of Oecanthus forbesi for Dr. Walker, I was hooked!  

Since then, Nancy has helped to describe multiple tree cricket species and created a phenomenal website about tree crickets (please check it out!) and focuses on increasing awareness of them. When I asked her why she’s so passionate about these insects, she mentions quite a few charming things about them, like their antennal cleaning habits (“like slurping a piece of spaghetti”) and overall grooming behavior (“they use their hind limbs to groom their head and body, which reminds me of the way a cat keeps itself clean”), the “absolutely adorable” nymphs that emerge after a harsh Wisconsin winter, and that when males sing “the two wings form a heart.” 

Nancy found out about iNat in 2018, when she wanted to reward Jean-Michel Maes (@jmmaes) for helping obtain specimen permits from Nicaragua. 

His request to me was to become active in using iNaturalist. There were over 100 pages of images in the tree crickets section awaiting further confirmation, and it took over two months for me to get through them all! It is now a daily task, and I have reviewed over 3,000 tree cricket submissions. More often than not, I try to give tips on what we need to see in tree cricket photos to make a confident ID.

She’s been keeping an eye out for observations from Mexico in the hopes that Neoxabea formosa (last seen a century ago) would turn up, and at first glance she thought Carlos’s observation might have been a match - but it turned out to be something previously unknown!


When describing a new tree cricket species, Nancy tells me “song pattern, song rate, song frequency, black markings on the first two antennal segments, width of the male’s wings, male’s metanotal gland and internal genitalia configurations, and coloring as well as size” are often needed, and it can be difficult to ship specimens across borders. “Thankfully,” she says, “Carlos was more than eager to do the necessary measurements and get the needed photographs and song recordings.”

“When the time came to make dissections under the microscope,” explains Carlos (below, in Penang)

Nancy sent us detailed slides on how to work our way to and extract the male genitalia. Note that I never had done this before, so she talked to us on live chat during the dissection. I sent her photos of what I was doing during the process and she gave me advice on what I was doing. The entire process was done in our home during the pandemic, and I think this is a great example of how people can connect and collaborate to advance science!

Nancy took the lead on the writing and review process and their paper was approved for publication in about one and a half months then finally published in June of 2021.

“Conservation can start at your garden or your local park,” says Carlos. “We do not need to climb mountains or go deep into pristine forest to discover new species and actually take care of them. It can start at your doorstep.”

(Some quotes have been lightly edited for clarity and flow.)


- Nancy has also collaborated with Isabel Margarita Coronado González and Bruno Victor Alfons Govaerts (@coronadogim) via iNaturalist to describe two other new tree cricket species from Mexico! The iNat observations can be found here and here, and you can check out the papers here and here, respectively.

- Don’t forget to take a look at Nancy’s tree cricket website, Oecanthinae.com!

- Not only is Carlos a freelance biologist, he’s also part of CONABIO’s network of Naturalista Mexico’s tutors and works with National Geographic Explorers, helping them use iNaturalist so they can engage and empower their local communities.

Posted by tiwane tiwane, July 15, 2021 20:53

Comments

This is a phenomenal story and an awesome observation!

Posted by codyhough 2 months ago (Flag)

So cool! Nancy has identified oodles of my tree cricket observations and provided lots of helpful ID tips. I loved her story of how she was inspired by the sound-amplifying ingenuity of a male tree cricket...one of those "aha" moments :)

Posted by weecorbie 2 months ago (Flag)

I'm living for this kinf of news!! congrat people!!!

Posted by diegoalmendras 2 months ago (Flag)

Great story!

Posted by cthawley 2 months ago (Flag)

What a great collaboration!

Posted by ddennism 2 months ago (Flag)

Can't imagine doing a dissection over a live chat! Congrats to you guys!

Posted by sciencegirl02 2 months ago (Flag)

I love this on so many levels! Congratulations to you all. It’s a amazing find and an amazing story!

Posted by lisa_bennett 2 months ago (Flag)

This story rocks! (Back)yard / home projects rock! Check out the umbrella project dedicated to the latter. Way to go, @aztekium_tutor @nan-cee!

Posted by jakob 2 months ago (Flag)

I love the story ;) I'd also like to find new species in my backyard...

Posted by greek_cicada_project 2 months ago (Flag)

Fantastic work folks! Super cool.

Posted by susanhewitt 2 months ago (Flag)

These are the kinds of stories that make me tremendously happy and optimistic. Love it!

Posted by sambiology 2 months ago (Flag)

So awesome! Congrats on the great work!

Posted by ameeds 2 months ago (Flag)

That's wonderful! Congratulations!

Posted by pufferchung 2 months ago (Flag)

This is a fantastic story! What a great backyard find!

Posted by erikamitchell 2 months ago (Flag)

Great. One aspect of iNaturalist is having fun playing together.

Posted by jmmaes 2 months ago (Flag)

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