Surprise!

Look: This insect is actually 16 different species

Take a closer look.

Sofia Sheikh

GALLERY IMAGE BY ENTOMOLOGICAL SOCIETY OF AMERICA

Can you spot the difference between these wasps?

Some have slight physical differences, but they look generally the same.

For decades, scientists thought they were one species.

That is until a team analyzed the wasps’ DNA. Instead of just a single species, Ormyrus labotus is at least 16 different ones.

GALLERY IMAGE BY ENTOMOLOGICAL SOCIETY OF AMERICA

Sheikh et al, Insect Systematics and Diversity (2022)

Writing last week in a paper in Insect Systematics and Diversity, researchers describe how O. labotus, once thought to be one species, is actually several different kinds that all look extremely alike.

The discovery started with a collection of plant galls: growths on leaves, flowers, and branches that insects nest in.

Andrew Forbes

O. labotus, being a parasite, will lay its eggs inside galls created by other insects.

Researchers spent five years collecting samples of 150 types of galls around the continental U.S.

Anna Ward

They placed the samples in an incubator until the larvae were ready to emerge. 51 galls, it turns out, were housing wasps in the genus Ormyrus.

Anna Ward

Sofia Sheikh

And O. labotus was found in a whole host of galls from different regions, sourced from trees all the way from Wisconsin to Florida.

The red dots on this map show where galls housing O. labotus were found. Other Ormyrus species are represented by the blue dots.

Sheikh et al, Insect Systematics and Diversity (2022)

“Many parasitic insects tend to specialize on their hosts ... given this, it seemed unusual that this one species could attack such a wide and diverse set of gall hosts.”

Lead study author Sofia Sheikh tells Inverse.

Sofia Sheikh

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What could be explained as the exceptional ability of a species adapting to parasitize so many different galls ended up being a bit more complex.

Sheikh et al, Insect Systematics and Diversity (2022)

Though they look roughly the same on the outside, DNA analysis combined with observational factors revealed that the O. labotus specimens actually represented 16 to 18 different species.

Sofia Sheikh

That would make these parasitic wasps a cryptic speciesone that appears the same on the outside but boasts a range of genetic diversity hidden in plain sight.

While uncovering a cryptic species may seem like a rarity, lead study author Sofia Sheikh of the University of Chicago tells Inverse that she thinks “it's quite common, in part because there is just so much undiscovered diversity.”

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“Many of the gall collections in this study that resulted in these Ormyrus species were done in nearby parks and around the Midwest, so lots of hidden diversity exists right next to us.”

Sheikh tells Inverse.

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