A Murray State biology professor has named a new insect species after her daughter, who helped make the discovery while planting flowers in western Kentucky.
Dr. Laura Sullivan-Beckers teaches zoology, ornithology and human anatomy classes to undergraduate students at Murray State. She’s also mom to 5-year-old Sylvie. During the summer of 2016, when Sylvie was 2 years old, the toddler uncovered a brand-new insect species.
Sullivan-Beckers said the two were out planting when Sylvie accidentally overwatered a flower bed, and they noticed insects floating in the standing water. Sullivan-Beckers identified them as what are commonly known as treehoppers (of the Membracidae family), but finding them down in the soil struck her as odd.
Over the summer, the mother and daughter collected thousands of treehoppers, including about 72 belonging to the new species, while taking notes along the way.
Sullivan-Beckers observed that the insects were deposited by nearby wasps, which had been collecting them from trees before carrying them into their nests to feed their young underground.
Sullivan-Beckers credits Sylvie for the actual discovery of the new species. After reaching out to her Ph.D adviser, Dr. Rex Cocroft at the University of Missouri, Sullivan-Beckers sent samples to a taxonomist in Washington, D.C., where the discovery was confirmed.
“I still can’t believe that these undiscovered treehoppers were essentially in my own backyard,” Sullivan-Beckers said. “What’s even crazier is that I never would have found them had it not been for the wasps delivering them to my flower bed and my daughter overwatering it. It’s true that science involves luck and serendipity. I was at the right place at the right time with the perfect field assistant.”
From there, Sullivan-Beckers decided to honor her daughter’s discovery by requesting the species officially be designated Hebetica sylviae.
“As soon as it was confirmed as a new species, I knew I wanted it named after Sylvie,” Sullivan-Beckers said. “She was at the heart of the discovery, and it’s not every day a mother gets the chance to name a species after her child.”
This month, Sullivan-Beckers and her collaborator at the United States Department of Agriculture, Dr. Stuart McKamey, will publish the species description of Hebetica sylviae in the “Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington.”
They have a name and description of this insect but are working to learn more about its life. Currently, Sullivan-Beckers is working to find the new treehoppers before the wasps get to them.