University of Calgary

Search is on for elusive tusked wasp

Submitted by tdroden on Sat, 01/15/2011 - 15:05.

Search is on for elusive tusked wasp

By Leanne Yohemas

Dr. Rob Longair has travelled to Liberia in search of Synagris elephas, a rare and unusual species of wasp. (Photo by Dr. Rob Longair)Dr. Rob Longair has travelled to Liberia in search of Synagris elephas, a rare and unusual species of wasp. (Photo by Dr. Rob Longair)

Dr. Rob Longair is on the hunt for a very unusual wasp in Africa; one he learned about three decades ago and likely hasn't been captured for more than a century.

"It's strikingly different. It has strange protrusions on its abdomen," says Longair, who recently returned from a research trip to Liberia. While there, he spread the word about his search to villagers and conservation officers.

As a biology student, Longair started out studying "cuddly, furry creatures" but after a summer job at the Canadian National Collection of Insects, Arachnids and Nematodes in Ottawa and a fantastic graduate supervisor, wasps became his main love.

A senior instructor in the Department of Biological Sciences and curator of the University of Calgary's insect collection, Longair learned about the unusual species, Synagris elephas, about 30 years ago after he discovered one of its relatives in a museum drawer.

Synagris is the group of species that contain wasps which have different spine-like structures sticking out of their bodies.

Through funding from National Geographic, he was able to study one species in Ivory Coast.

Large males of this type, Synagris cornuta, have two mandibular "tusks" which are used to fight other wasps encroaching on female nests.

Clues about elephas are limited. Many years ago, Longair found a description written in 1895 by a French entomologist, Ernest Andre, describing the wasp as the "biggest and most unusual" of the group.

The Musee National d'histoire naturelle in Paris has the only specimen, found by Albert Mocquerys who travelled all over the world collecting plants, birds and insects for European scientists. The museum recently sent Longair pictures to help him in his search.

He's starting in Liberia because he had a base to work from thanks to connections with the Calgary Zoo, which collaborates on projects there.

Could elephas be extinct? "I doubt it," says Longair, who notes that scientists haven't really been looking for it. "When I showed a picture, people said they recognized it."