Ruth Bader Ginsburg Mantis Heralds New Era of Species Identification
Who has six legs, cone-shaped eyes, and just changed science history? Ruth Bader Ginsburg, of course. All right, fine. Not the revered Supreme Court justice herself, but the new mantis species Ilomantis ginsburgae, whose introduction is shaking up the male-centric world of mantis taxonomy. A report on the new species and taxonomic technique appears in the journal Insect Systematics & Evolution.
Figuring out an animal’s species is a lot more complicated than it sounds. Taxonomists (scientists who identify organisms) make their determination based on many factors, including genetics, environment, and behavior. When possible, they also look at a specimen’s junk. But for a number of reasons, scientists have focused almost exclusively on male genitals. We now know a whole lot about animal penises, claspers, and stabby bits. Female genitals? Not so much.
This wasn’t always the case for mantises, says Sydney Brannoch, a postdoctoral researcher at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and lead author of the new paper. “What began as equal consideration of genital morphology diverged around the 1950s,” she told mental_floss in an email. It was then that researchers really started zooming in on male genitals. They did this in part, she says, because male insects’ sex organs are external and relatively easy to see. But in the excitement over male genitalia, female specimens got left in the dust.
“Before undertaking this research,” Brannoch says, “I was told that female praying mantis genitalia is fairly uniform and of little-to-no taxonomic value.” But she wasn’t about to take somebody else’s word for it.
Brannoch and her coauthor/advisor Gavin Svenson rounded up 30 praying mantis specimens from three different museums. They performed a full taxonomic analysis, reviewing the insects’ geographic distribution and appearance, especially their reproductive bits.
They found that yes, indeed, female specimens were just as good as males as species identifiers due to their unique characteristics and diversity. But the female specimens also revealed a surprise: a new species, hiding in plain sight. Comparing the specimens’ lady parts, Brannoch and Svenson realized that some of them belonged to the genus Ilomantis.
First described in 1915, Ilomantis is so similar to the related genus Nilomantis that the two were eventually combined, then separated, then later combined again. But the examination of ostensibly Nilomantis female specimens showed, incontrovertibly, that they belonged to a different genus. Ilomantis was reborn, and, with it, a previously unknown mantis species that Brannoch named after Ruth Bader Ginsburg, that champion of equal rights.
“Developing new characteristics, especially from female specimens, helps us not only test the validity of species, but makes identification much easier,” Svenson said in a press statement. “Many praying mantis species have males and females that look very different. If a person finds one sex, they may only be able to identify the specimen if their specimen’s sex matches what is known from previous research. Our work reduces this impediment by characterizing both sexes for praying mantis species.”
Brannoch is hopeful that mantises are just the beginning. “This research establishes the validity of using female specimens in the classification of praying mantises,” she said. “It is my hope that our work not only sets a precedent in taxonomy but also underscores the need for scientists to investigate and equally consider both sexes in other scientific investigations.”