This grant is for the improvement of the taxonomic revision of a family of parasitic wasps, Signiphoridae (Chalcidoidea), which are natural enemies of scale insects, mealybugs, psyllids, and flies. The project is based on a comparative study of material collected worldwide. The species will be classified and new species will be described (at least 25 new species). Evolutionary relationships will be inferred from morphological and molecular data, using state-of-the-art analytical methods. The award will also be used to develop tools to manage the large amounts of data produced (specimen information, descriptions, images, DNA sequences), prepare it for public delivery, and to visit two institutions with valuable material from the Brazilian savannah (cerrado), Atlantic Rainforest, and Amazon. Besides enhancing significantly the depth of the study, this grant provides training for a graduate student in three areas (comparative morphology, molecular studies and bioinformatics) which are essential to taxonomists in the 21st Century. Training of taxonomists is important given the increasing scarcity of such professionals. This study will facilitate the use of these insects in the control of insect pests, provide tools to other scientists in taxonomy, provide opportunity for undergraduate student workers, and contribute to the knowledge of the fauna of the New World tropics.
Taxonomy provides the basic units, the names, to which all information on organisms, from molecular data to behavior and community ecology, are attached. This field has acquired new vitality in recent years due to the popularization of new tools and techniques (molecular biology, biodiversity informatics), and to public concern about the biodiversity crisis. This project is placed within a broader initiative to study the biological diversity and classification of a group of parasitic wasps, the Signiphoridae. Signiphoridae are tiny (0.5-2mm length) wasps which are associated with scale insects, aphids, mealybugs, and some groups of flies. These parasitic wasps lay their eggs in their hosts and, when they emerge, the host is killed (hence the term 'parasitoid'). Some species are parasitoids of the parasitoids, that is, their larvae feed on a parasite which is already attacking a something else. Understanding which one is which has important implications for agriculture, since parasitoids are natural enemies that have a role controlling the populations of undesired/pest insects. The formal recognition of an animal species is done through descriptions which are published in journals, often now available online through sources such as the Biodiversity Heritage Library, Plazi or publishers themselves. Despite efforts of taxonomists, there is still a large gap between the number of species described and the actual number of species that exist, and this is particularly true about insects. This study is an effort to document the species of Signiphoridae and overcome the challenges that are associated with this task: 1. locate these specimens in samples from areas for which most of the biodiversity is unknown, 2. understand their evolutionary relationships, so that their characteristics and distribution can be placed in a larger context which can help us to predict life histories of species for which we only have limited information, as well as where other unknown species might be and 3. organize this information in such a way that it can be contributed to major, public biodiversity databases (e.g. www.gbif.org; www.eol.org), from which citizens and institutions that need biodiversity data for conservation policies can obtain this information. During the course of this work, we documented over 6,500 specimens and over 600 literature references. We visited museums in Brazil, England and Hungary, to add to samples obtained from museums from Canada, Australia and South Africa, so that we can understand this group in a worldwide context and document records from different ecosystems. At the beginning of this project, there were about 80 known species; we located roughly another 40 species previously unknown to science. We obtained DNA sequence data for representatives of all major groups in this family, which allowed us to have better estimates of the evolutionary relationships between the species. We have also been working closely with developers of an open source database system, MX, so that the data relative to samples, specimens and the information associated with with the names can be easily stored and accessed from any computer. We also used NSF support to obtain the tools to make it easier to share the information we produced on these new species with other public databases – submit photographs to image databases (in this case, MorphBank) and DNA sequences with GenBank.