Treehoppers are marvellous oddities of the insect world. A vast family of some 3,200 species, these critters boast an array of zany body shapes: some are spiked, others have horns, still others sport helmets that look like ants. While browsing through a collection of treehopper specimens, Brendan Morris, a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, recently identified a new genus of treehopper, as brash and strange in its appearance as its cousins. And Morris had the perfect namesake for his discovery: Lady Gaga.
Officially introduced in the journal Zootaxa, Kaikaia gaga was collected 30 years ago from a forest in Nicaragua, and was subsequently stored with other specimens at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. She (the specimen was female) has a dark purple and red body with dramatic, horn-like protuberances—not dissimilar to shoulder pads, Morris tells Kate McGee of WBEZ Chicago.
“If there is going to be a Lady Gaga bug,” he says, “it’s going to be a treehopper, because ... they have this wacky fashion sense about them.”
Key to the treehoppers’ unique style is their pronotum, the protective plate at the front of their thorax. “In most other insects, such as leafhoppers, cicadas, beetles, and bees, the pronotum is just a simple band from one side to the other,” explains entomologist Stuart McKamey. But among treehoppers, the pronotum has gone wild, evolving into strange and diverse forms. These “helmets,” according to Smithsonian’s Katherine J. Wu, are probably a defensive strategy; by taking the shape of thorns, feces and even other insects, they may help treehoppers avoid predation. The tropical genus Bocydium, for instance, has a protrusion that looks like the dastardly Ophiocordyceps fungus, which infects ants and takes over their central nervous system—perhaps a sign that potential predators should stay away.
But even among this oddball insect family, K. gaga is unusual. “[T]he frontoclypeus, which is kind of like the face, was shaped totally different,” Morris says.
The specimen’s genitalia were also weird. The most species-rich treehopper subfamily Centrotinae, “originated in North America or the Caribbean before dispersing into the Old World and South America,” Morris and his co-author Christopher Dietrich write in Zootaxa. But though K. gaga was discovered in Nicaragua, its genitalia shared characteristics with an Old World group.
Genetic research is essential to explain this quirk, but Morris wasn’t able to extract any DNA from the K. gaga specimen. He is travelling to Nicaragua to see if he can find any others like her—though perhaps, like the superstar who inspired her name, K. gaga would prefer to be one of a kind.