Shaun Winterton has a deep habit of staring at images of bugs on his computer. As a senior entomologist at the California Department of Food and Agriculture, bug-gazing is encouraged under his professional purview. In May 2011, a specific photo-set of a Green Lacewing on Guek Hock Ping’s Flickr caught Winterton’s eye. The insect in question was unremarkable but for a couple variations from the greater Lacewing population: a distinct black network of veins on the bug’s wings and blue specks across its head.
Excited by the discovery, Winterton emailed the images to a couple of colleagues who confirmed it was not a species of Green Lacewing they had encountered before. In hopes of finding a specimen, Winterton contacted Guek. The photographer noticed the bug while hiking in Malaysia—He took a picture of it, then let it fly away. Without a specimen, there would be no way of confirming it was a new species.
Green Lacewings or Chrysopidae are part of the Neuroptera order (known for their four wings, strong mandibles, and three pairs of thoracic legs). The Lacewing family itself is a genealogical nightmare. Green Lacewings are represented by over 1200 species across 80 genera within three sub-families: Apochrysinae, Nothochrysinae, and the largest Chrysopinae. The Chrysopinae is further comprised of—I shit you not—four smaller groupings: Belonopterygini, Chrysopini, Leucochrysini and Ankylopterygini. The genus Semachrysa sits within the Ankylopterygini and that is where the mystery Lacewing belongs. Winterton’s ability to recognize the insect, from two photos on Flickr, as a new species is something short of divine, entomological intervention.
One year later, Winterton received an email from Guek: “I’ve got one in a container on my kitchen table—what should I do with it?” Guek, who had returned to Malaysia and encountered the strange Lacewing again, sent the sample to Steve Brooks, an entomologist at the Natural History Museum in London, who was able to confirm the new species: Semachrysa jade.
The discovery, as published in ZooKeys, touts the importance of citizen scientists and the process by which the discovery was made as much, if not more, than the actual discovery itself. (Note: The scientific paper was co-authored by Winterton, Guek, and Brooks via Google Docs while they all worked equidistantly across the globe.) The key to Arthropodic scientific discovery has never been so flat. Grab your camera; go.