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Liladownsia fraile: The Rest of the Story

(A version of the following article
was originally published in Metaleptea 34(2): 13-15)

By Derek A. Woller

Derek A. Woller

My colleagues (Paolo Fontana, Ricardo Mariño-Pérez, and Hojun Song) and I recently published a paper in Zootaxa entitled “Studies in Mexican Grasshoppers: Liladownsia fraile, a new genus and species of Dactylotini (Acrididae: Melanoplinae) and an updated molecular phylogeny of Melanoplinae.” We are very proud of the paper, especially since it contains a little of this and a little of that, from molecular evidence to alpha taxonomy, to habitat and (possible) host plant descriptions. All in all, it’s quite a robust work, in our opinion, but the thing that probably stands out the most is the name of the species.

The genus name, for those of you unfamiliar with her (as I was originally), comes from Lila Downs, a Mexican-American singer who was born close to the type locality in Oaxaca and who promotes the cultural diversity of Mexico through her music. She also enjoys wearing bright and vibrant colors, often characteristic of Mexican culture, and this new species reflects that well.

Photo of female Liladownsia fraile. Photo by D.A. Woller.

Due to its fantastic colors and fairly large size, we were astounded that no one had yet described this species on behalf of science when we, quite randomly, came across the type locality back in 2011. In fact, I briefly touched on this tale in my “Musings on Mexico: A Mexican Travelogue” article in Metaleptea 32(1). In a nutshell, Paolo, Ricardo, and Paola Tirello, and I were on an expedition around southern Mexico to collect Pyrgomorphidae species for Ricardo’s Ph.D. project, and we were headed to San José del Pacífico (highly recommended!) towards a known species locality. To get to the town, you must drive up an extremely windy road through a pine forest, and as we neared our destination, Paolo looked out the window to the left, towards the dense forest, and saw a break in the brush where a crude road had been made.

Photo of male Liladownsia fraile. Photo by P. Fontana.

Now, if you have never met Paolo, then let me say that his instincts for finding orthopteroids are quite impressive. I have seen him head across a field to pick up a phasmid on the other side. Yes, I am exaggerating slightly, but not much, I assure you.

Anyway, he suddenly said, “Stop the car. We need to check this habitat,” so I turned around (somehow), parked on the faded road he had spotted, and we fanned out in search of … nothing. Minutes went by with not even a common hopper to be had, when SUDDENLY:

“A very strange nymph! I have never seen before!” Paolo exclaimed excitedly.

We all took a look and noted its very vibrant colors and fairly large size. With renewed energy, we went back to hunting in our own ways, when I saw something move across a plant near my waist. I bent down for a closer look and, lo and behold, a fiery rainbow emerged into the sun and we had captured our first adult! With renewed vigor, we all continued the pursuit until we finally emerged victorious with at least one specimen apiece. A hard-fought battle through waist-high weeds, spiny plants, dense needles, and the unfortunate trash that comes with being on the side of a main thoroughfare, but well worth it!

The intrepid explorers at the type locality holding Salvia elegans (pineapple sage), the potential host plant for Liladownsia fraile. Left to right: Paola Tirello, Paolo Fontana, Ricardo Mariño-Pérez, and Derek A. Woller. Photo by D.A. Woller.

We traveled into the town next and struck up a conversation with a local man while looking around for more localities. We showed him the specimens and asked him what he knew about this particular grasshopper. If you have never spoken with locals while collecting, you really should because they are sometimes filled with relevant information (and some can catch things really, really well), as was the case here. The man took a look and casually said something along the lines of (in Spanish, of course): “Oh, that? We call that the friar. I see those around here sometimes.”

Naturally, we were a bit taken aback because we were so thrilled and he was so serene, but really, if you owned a dairy farm you’d act the same if city tourists came to see the cows and acted as if they were exotic. For the non-Spanish speakers, “fraile” means friar (or monk), so we honored the local name for this grasshopper in the specific epithet of the species name. I personally feel that it is important to acknowledge such connections whenever possible. After all, more often than not, species are simply new to science and rarely so to local peoples.

I mentioned earlier that we were incredulous that no one had yet described this species, but it turns out we were rather lucky because, in fact, it had been discovered previously in 1962 and not even that far from the type locality. We discovered this when Ricardo traveled to Paris, France during this past spring on a European tour to photograph type pyrgomorphid specimens housed within various collections. While there, on a whim, he showed the newly-made plates of L. fraile to Simon Poulain, the curator of the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle (MNHN), and he quickly opened some drawers and located a small box containing two specimens (male and female) of the species. A note accompanied them, saying something along the lines of: “I think this is new, let’s describe it.” These specimens were included in our paper as paratypes.

Then, when David Rentz, a Zootaxa editor, saw our paper come through, he saw the photos and swore he knew where some more specimens might be curated, so he contacted a few institutions, one being the California Academy of Sciences (CAS), which he had visited in the seventies. However, the curatorial staff at CAS (and all other museums) were unable to find the specimens. I relayed this story to Ricardo, who then showed me a note that accompanied the MNHN specimens that stated that they had been borrowed from CAS 20 years prior, which means they are most likely the same ones Rentz saw! Presumably then, Christiane Amédégnato, a previous curator at MNHN, took an interest in them sometime after Rentz’s trip there, borrowed them, and most likely did not have time for a formal description. We are now immensely curious if any other specimens of this beautiful species are hiding in other collections out there. If you find some, let us know because more phenological data would be especially useful.

While writing this, yet another piece of the puzzle revealed itself. I found myself curious as to how the specimens came to be at CAS in the first place, so I went to our paper and looked at the collector: J. Stuart Rowley. A preliminary Google search turned up nothing of interest, so I added the word “Orthoptera” and, for whatever reason, this revealed a French Wikipedia page with some interesting information, but nothing about Orthoptera on it, bizarrely.

Still, despite it being a wiki entry, it made some sense. The “J.” stands for John, and he was an American ornithologist born in 1907 in California who did many good things for CAS until 1933, when he set out on his own to raise birds in Baja, CA. This is relevant because in 1958 he began leading expeditions to Oaxaca, the state in which the type locality of the grasshopper is located, to collect birds. Thus, it must have been on one of those trips that he encountered what is now known as Lila Downs’ friar grasshopper. Shortly after, in 1968 (only six years after his hopper discovery), he met his end all too early from an undescribed accident in the Sierra Madre del Sur, a mountain range in Oaxaca and the home of this new species. Eerie. All in all, a fascinating story, I think, and we have a lover of a major enemy of my beloved orthopterans to thank for it, in a manner of speaking.

I’d like to finish off this story by mentioning that, although the merits of naming a species after a pop culture icon (multiple Grammy-winning, in this case) are debatable (and the debate is definitely worth having — someone set up a symposium at ESA and let’s do it!), there are benefits as well. The most obvious one is recognition of our hard work by a much larger audience. The science crowd is wonderful, of course, but to show the public what we do on a larger stage is often much simpler than explaining it to a few interested parties, and the portal in this case is Lila Downs. We contacted her well before publishing the paper to see what she thought, and she loved the idea, especially since it made sense to her as well due to the Oaxaca and color connections. Once it was finally published, she was ecstatic, but also on tour (and still is), so a meet-and-greet is currently out of the question. That was publicity Plan A, so we went with B and had an article written up about us and our paper on the University of Central Florida’s website, using Lila Downs as the selling point.

That was the spark that lit the week-long fuse, and the article rapidly underwent a series of permutations and started popping up all over the web — even on the Internet Movie Database’s site! — so much so, that a Google inquiry into “Liladownsia fraile” at the height of the frenzy brought back 12,000 hits. However, right now it has dropped back down to the hundreds, which is still truly astounding since it was obviously zero prior to publication. To be fair, most of the mentions of its name were/are more than likely re-posts of the original article or writing the name in comment sections of sites, but it is still remarkable, I think. The Googling zenith was reached when Entomology Today, a news site run by the Entomological Society of America, posted their version of the original article, which was picked up Lila Downs herself and reposted on her Facebook and Twitter sites. After that, it was reported to me that Entomology Today’s page views were their highest ever (in the thousands), and Lila’s fans began re-posting the article all over the world. They also left a plethora of supportive and appreciative comments about our naming the hopper after her as, well as noting what a fitting homage it is.

Another benefit of naming a species after a celebrity is the possible channeling of such goodwill and appreciation for a type of creature that is normally ignored (and even reviled) into a more conservation-oriented mindset. Towards that end, this species was chosen to be included in the 2014 Red List of Threatened Species put out by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and has been classified as “endangered” based on their ranking criteria. Axel Hochkirch of the Grasshopper Specialist Group of the IUCN had been searching for candidate species to be included on the forthcoming list, and Paolo suggested that we should submit L. fraile since it is only known from a relatively small region in Oaxaca, and the known populations appear to be quite diminutive. We strongly urge others to head out there and look for more and report back to us with their findings! Any further information that can be added to our general knowledge of their behavior, habits, diet, etc. would be very interesting to possess.

Lastly, two of the web comments posted below our article on two different sites revealed yet another potential benefit of getting the word out to the public: potentially locating new localities. One fellow from Mexico swore that he saw a few specimens of L. fraile when he was younger near his home in Oaxaca, but about 100 miles northwest. Perhaps the guy was misremembering, but still, it might be worth checking out. Another person actually posted recent photos of the species, and the colors differed somewhat from all permutations that are known to us! Highly intriguing.

And on that note, as Paul Harvey was fond of saying, “Now you know the rest of the story.”


Derek A. Woller is a PhD candidate who works on the evolution of scrub-loving grasshoppers in the Song Laboratory of Insect Systematics and Evolution at the University of Central Florida (UCF – Orlando, FL).


    • Hello! This is the author here. As far as we know, they do not, probably because this particular hopper does not appear to be numerous and it does not seem to be known outside the mountainous region in which we encountered it. Also, the main areas they eat hoppers by the bowlful (and I ate many — they are in the genus Sphenarium) are further southwest towards the coast. Additionally, if their coloration is any indication, then these hoppers may not be very tasty at all!

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