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Biologists Discover Weird New Wasp Species

The newly Discover insect Neuroterus valhalla doesn’t look or act the part. It’s barely a millimeter long and spends 11 months of the year locked in a crypt. N. valhalla does have the noteworthy distinction of being the first insect species to be described alongside its fully sequenced genome, and the Rice University researchers who Discover it are preparing to see how the tiny, non-stinging wasps may have been impacted by Houston’s historic February 2021 freeze.

valhalla is described in a paper published this month in Systematic Entomology. Its name is an homage to where it was Discover: just outside the Rice graduate student pub Valhalla. Pedro Brandão-Dias, lead author of the paper said that it would have been a missed opportunity to not call it something related to Rice or Valhalla. They first collected N. valhalla from the branches of a massive live oak tree near the campus bar in spring 2018.

Brandão, a Brazilian, had never seen an oak tree before visiting Rice in 2015 for an undergraduate research fellowship in the lab of evolutionary biologist Scott Egan, corresponding author of the study. Brandão returned to Egan’s group in 2018 for graduate school, and though Brandão’s primary research centers on the use of environmental DNA to detect endangered or invasive species, everyone in the lab pitches in each spring to study insects of family Cynipidae.

valhalla and other gall wasps trick their host tree into feeding and sheltering their young. The wasps lay a biochemical cocktail along with their eggs. The chemicals coax the tree to form a crypt, or gall, around the egg. The gall shelters the egg and feeds larvae that hatch from it.

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