According to Brendan Morris, a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, treehoppers are the wackiest, most astonishing bugs most people have never heard of. They are morphological wonders, sporting bizarre protuberances that look like horns, gnarled branches, antlers, fruiting fungi, brightly colored flags, or dead plant leaves. Treehoppers suck on plant juices. They sing to each other by vibrating plant stems. And they are an important food source for other forest creatures.
“I love outrageous forms and colors,” said Morris, who studies entomology. “It blows my mind that a group that is roughly 40 million years old has so much diversity of form – diversity, I would argue, that we don’t see in any other family of insects.”
To draw attention to this group, Morris named a newly discovered treehopper species after Lady Gaga, a musical performer who has her own flamboyant, shape-shifting style.
“If there is going to be a Lady Gaga bug, it’s going to be a treehopper, because they’ve got these crazy horns, they have this wacky fashion sense about them,” Morris said. “They’re unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.”
The insect, now known as Kaikaia gaga, also represents a new genus of treehopper, Morris and his co-author, Illinois Natural History Survey entomologist Christopher Dietrich, reported in the journal Zootaxa. Her features – the bug is female – differentiate her from other treehoppers found with her nearly 30 years ago in a tropical forest near the Pacific coast of Nicaragua. She was one of about 1,000 specimens Morris borrowed from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh as part of his research.
Insect taxonomists look primarily at head and body shapes, leg and body hairs, and genitalia to differentiate one bug group from another. When Morris looked at this particular specimen under a stereoscope, he noticed some unusual characteristics.
A part of the thorax – just behind the head – was horned, like many other specimens, but the leg hairs differentiated it from the other tribes of treehoppers he had seen.
“Also, the frontoclypeus, which is kind of like the face, was shaped totally different,” Morris said. “And the genitalia looked more like treehoppers from the Caribbean or this Old World group, Beaufortianini.”
That last observation was strange, because treehoppers are believed to have originated in the Americas. More research – specifically genetic research – will begin to explain why K. gaga shares traits with Old World treehoppers.
Morris has tried to extract DNA from his one, 30-year-old specimen, but so far has had no luck. He will travel to Nicaragua to see if he can find any living K. gaga specimens in the same forest where this one was collected.
In the meantime, he is sharing his enthusiasm for this largely overlooked bug group, which is found in most forested areas of the planet.
“Treehoppers are wacky, and I think that makes them especially suited to be ‘spokesbugs’ for the wide range of habitats they use,” Morris said. In an interview with CNN, which was one of several news outlets interested in the connection to Lady Gaga, Morris said that new treehopper species are found all the time, and the only limit to learning more is funding and the number of people studying them.
"So much of our natural world remains unknown, and we can't know how to save species without knowing their names," he told the network.
The INHS is a division of the Prairie Research Institute at the University of Illinois. The National Science Foundation supported this research.