Weta workshop: The highs and lows of finding a new species

Morgan Shields was a third year undergraduate student when he found a new species of weta as part of his field ecology course. Morgan tells us how this came about.

A brand new weta species!

Finding a new species is a dream of most budding biologists. However, for many this never becomes a reality. I was lucky enough to live this dream during the 2014 ECOL310 Field Ecology course at Lincoln University, when I collected a highly divergent species of cave weta (Rhaphidophoridae) during my research project. A highly divergent species is one that is identified as likely new species but has not been confirmed. It was a pretty sweet feeling that, as an undergraduate student, I had found something that no else had likely ever documented before. My excitement was magnified when the find was celebrated by lecturers in the Ecology department who had taught me for the last three years.

Our intrepid student hard at work.

However, my buzz soon wore off as reality sunk in.  Although the specimens had been identified as a likely new species of the genus Pleioplectron by entomologists Peter Johns and Marie McDonald, who specialise in weta, this could not be confirmed without detailed phylogenetic and morphological studies. And these are only the first steps to formally recognising a new species; one must then study many specimens to determine the natural variation within the species and create a formal description with assigned voucher specimens to show how this weta differs from all others. This description then has to be published in a taxonomic journal, having gone through a rigorous peer-review process from experts in the field. Only then is the species named, which is a privilege for any entomologist. It is currently unclear who will undertake this journey but perhaps it could be a pet project of mine. Having realised the lengths required to formally describe new species, I have come to the conclusion that in many circumstances, such as my project, it is simpler to find an already known species.

A pitfall trap in the forest at Boyle River.

The cave weta were collected during my field ecology project at Boyle River, near the Lewis Pass in the Southern Alps of New Zealand, which examined how invertebrate community composition differs between native beech and kanuka habitats. This information could then contribute to invertebrate conservation. Pitfall traps, which are essentially plastic cups with a preservative inside, were used to catch the weta and other invertebrates which were identified to recognisable taxonomic units (RTUs). These RTUs are then looked at by experts and my highly divergent cave weta species was later determined as a likely new species. Reflecting on this adventure, the field ecology course provided this opportunity to find some of New Zealand’s hidden wonders and apply the skills that I had learnt in my degree on a real research project, in a spectacular part of the Southern Alps and supported by hands-on lecturers. This was one of the best courses I have taken and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to get out into the bush to do some real hands-on ecology.

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