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Tiny mummifiers

The wasp Aleiodes falloni, which deposits its eggs...

EDUARDO SHIMBORI / UFSCARThe wasp Aleiodes falloni, which deposits its eggs…EDUARDO SHIMBORI / UFSCAR

In Ecuador, in lands known as the home of indigenous tribes that shrunk the heads of their enemies, a new kind of mummifier has been discovered. Namely, 24 new species of wasps of the genus Aleiodes, found on the eastern slopes of the Andes. These insects, which measure four to nine millimeters long, have been described by Brazilian biologist Eduardo Shimbori from the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar) and American researcher Scott Shaw from the University of Wyoming (ZooKeys, 2014). The females inject an egg into a specific caterpillar, in whose body the wasp larva grows and causes the host’s skin to harden, mummifying it. The larva then completes its development cycle inside the caterpillar.

... in a caterpillar's body and mummifies it

EDUARDO SHIMBORI / UFSCAR… in a caterpillar’s body and mummifies itEDUARDO SHIMBORI / UFSCAR

Many of the new wasp species were named after celebrities — Aleiodes shakirae, for instance. The reference to Colombian singer Shakira was inspired by the way the caterpillar wriggles as it is being mummified. According to Shimbori, there at least 160 Aleiodes species in Brazil that have yet to be described. Since 2010, he has been trying to narrow the gap by working on a postdoctoral project supervised by Angélica Penteado-Dias, coordinator of the National Institute of Science and Technology of the Parasitoid Wasps of Southeastern Brazil. “Parasitoids are always associated with the insects they use as hosts, so this knowledge is very important for research on ecology and evolution, and also for the control of agricultural pests,” says the biologist.