By Kevin Fitzgerald
Treehoppers are found on all major landmasses except Antarctica and Madagascar. Numbering about 3,500 species in 300 genera, they are divided into three families: Aetalionidae, Melizoderidae, and Membracidae. All treehoppers feed on plant sap by sucking it out with piercing mouthparts. They feed on more than 100 herbaceous and woody plant species. Some treehoppers exude sweet “honeydew” from excess consumed sap, which they share with ants in a mutualistic relationship, the ants swilling honeydew and protecting the treehoppers from predators. Some treehoppers are also known to form mutualistic relationships with wasps and bees.
It’s impossible to describe a “typical” treehopper, since their forms vary wildly. In most species, the wings, at rest, are held over and appressed to the back, forming a peak. Some species, especially those in the tropics, sport elaborate, outlandish ornaments on the pronotum (behind the head, on the first thoracic segment). For examples, check out “Bocydium globulare,” or take a look at some close-up photos.
Dr. Stuart McKamey, a research entomologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture who studies treehoppers, said, “I met a professional photographer once who took pictures of flowers and various animals, including treehoppers. I asked how much he sold the treehopper pictures for. He replied that he couldn’t sell them because people didn’t believe they were real.”
Recently, Brendan O. Morris and Dr. Christopher H. Dietrich, of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, found a new genus and its single species that is found in Texas and northern Mexico, which they describe in an article in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America.
They named the new genus Selenacentrus after the singer Selena, who was known as the “Queen of Tejano Music.” The new species is called wallacei in honor of Matthew S. Wallace, a biology professor from East Stroudsburg University.
The southwest U.S. is rich in treehopper species, and Arizona is considered a biodiversity hotspot for them. The most recently described North American treehopper species, before the discovery of S. wallacei, came from Arizona and Nevada.
The scientists discovered S. wallacei after examining 45 specimens of mislabeled treehoppers that were borrowed from collections at the Illinois Natural History Survey, the United States National Museum of Natural History, the American Museum of Natural History, Texas A&M University, and the University of Missouri.
Selenacentrus wallacei is included within the family Membracidae and the subfamily Centrotinae. The new monotypic genus lacks features of currently recognized tribes of the subfamily Centrotinae, including the top tip and lower lobes of the sides of the genital capsule in the males, and the hair-like setae of the femur of the second pair of legs, which are features of the tribe Boocerini. It also lacks some wing veins that are used to diagnose the tribe Platycentrini. The narrow, curved valvulae — organs that cut into plant tissue to lay eggs — with prominent teeth along the top edge, and the exposure of the sides of the second segment of the thorax resemble those of some tribes (Monobelini, Nessorhinini) that are only found in the Caribbean Antilles.
The new genus differs from all of these tribes in the arrangement of veins in the forewing and in the structure of the male genitalia.
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Kevin Fitzgerald is a freelance science writer living in Connecticut. He has published in newspapers, encyclopedias, and online.