“What more fitting way is there to celebrate South Africa’s National Heritage Day, the 24th of September, and the 42nd year of the UNESCO World Heritage Convention with the people of South Africa and the world, than with the announcement of the recent ground-breaking discovery and naming of two new species of monkey moths in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, South Africa’s first World Heritage Site?” announced Minister of Environmental Affairs, Edna Molewa.
“On South Africa’s national heritage day, iSimangaliso Wetland Park continues to reveal more examples of the wisdom of the decision of half a million citizens including Nelson Mandela, who campaigned to save the area from mining and instead conserve it for the benefit of our people and global community as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The project leader, Professor Renzo Perissinotto of Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, and iSimangaliso staff are to be congratulated on this discovery and for nurturing the Park,” said the Minister.
“It is hugely gratifying and exciting that, at a time when the global ecosystem and habitat destruction is resulting in a worldwide extinction rate of a 1 000 times greater than the natural extinction rate, new species are being discovered in iSimangaliso. Since being listed as a World Heritage Site, virtually one new species previously unknown to man has been discovered each year in iSimangaliso. Seven more probable new species are currently in the process of verification and description, leaving no doubt that iSimangaliso is indeed a global hot-spot of biodiversity and worthy of all our care and protection” said the iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority CEO, Andrew Zaloumis.
Professor Renzo Perissinotto of Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University concurred, adding, “research into iSimangaliso biodiversity escalates the discovery of species unknown to science. The exceptional biodiversity of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park is being revealed with increased frequency, as our research on its various ecosystems structure and functioning leads to the unravelling of its building blocks: the species.”
iSimangaliso’s Andrew Zaloumis (AZ) put some questions to Prof Renzo (RP):
AZ: Were these new species discovered in iSimangaliso?
RP: Yes, but while Stenoglene perissinottoi was described from specimens found ONLY within the Park (therefore endemic to iSimangaliso), the S. clucki type series included also specimens from other areas of KZN (so, it is a KZN endemic, not an iSimangaliso endemic).
AZ: How many new species are you aware of having been discovered in iSimangaliso since it was listed as a world heritage site?
RP: Apart from these two moths, at least another prominent insect, a fruit chafer named Haematonotus jenisi was described in 2004 by Czech entomologist Milan Krajcik from a single male specimen collected at the old picnic site on the main road passing through the Dukuduku Forest. We have subsequently collected two more males drowning in the water at False Bay but the female remains unknown – we have been trying to obtain this for years, but no luck yet.
Then of course we had the prominent discovery of the new anemone Edwardsia isimangaliso, which was described in 2012 by our research team and announced in an iSimangaliso Newsflash.
Infaunal collections in the sandy and muddy sediments of the Lake St Lucia Estuary and adjacent freshwater wetlands have also resulted in the discovery of at least two new species of a very poorly known Phylum, the Gastrotricha. These include Halichaetonotus sanctaeluciae and Kijanebalola devestiva, which were described in 2011 and 2013, respectively, under the guidance of world expert Antonio Todaro from the University of Modena, Italy. Prof Todaro maintains that there are at least another 3-5 species from this group from iSimangaliso that need to be described, but this will require further material and work to be finalised.
Finally, a new crustacean copepod species was recognized in Lake St Lucia and described in 2012 under the leadership of Mexican expert Samuel Gomez, by the name of Nitocra taylori.
AZ:. How many possible species are currently in the verification naming process?
RP: As mentioned above, there are another 3-5 species of gastrotrichs that need further work and new material to be described. Also, we are looking into a possible new species of freshwater crab found in the ephemeral wetlands of False Bay. Morphologically, the species looks sufficiently different from its closest relative, found in the uMfolozi/Msunduzi swamps and other wetlands further to the interior. However, there is large intraspecific variability in these crabs and thus further studies using molecular DNA analyses are required to conclusively verify the status of the False Bay population. The assimineid gastropod snails found throughout Lake St Lucia are also subject to genetic analysis at the moment, as at least one of the two taxa recognised within the system is still lacking not only a specific name, but also generic and possibly even family affiliation. A collaborative study with Winston Ponder of the Australian Museum in Sydney is currently in progress and should hopefully lead to the description of the new species and genus sometime in the near future.
AZ: Please explain the process from the time a possible new species is found to it being confirmed as a new species including who decides. Why does it take so long?
This is difficult to answer, because there are different dynamics developing with each of the species that we suspect may be new and in need of description. First, we have a huge problem with the science of taxonomy in South Africa, because during the last few decades we have essentially failed to retain the few taxonomists we had in the country and, unfortunately, we have not been able to convince new students to take this as a career of choice. So, we find ourselves in a situation of having to rely on experts generally located overseas, who are generally busy and oversubscribed with descriptions of new species commissioned from all over the world. Thus, it is a fine play of generating sufficient interest in these experts to tackle our specimens with priority and dedicating to them the necessary attention and time to describe the new species in reasonable time. Sometimes it works well, but other times our material gets put on the “back-burner”. The latter is especially the case when morphological characters are not sufficiently diagnostic for a new species and further molecular genetic work is required.
More on the newly discovered moth species:
Stenoglene perissinottoi, with a maximum wingspan of about 4.5 cm, is known only from these two localities and, therefore appears to be a proper endemic to iSimangaliso. It is restricted to the more inland portions of the Maputaland coastal forest. Stenoglene clucki, on the other hand, has a larger wingspan of about 6.5 cm and has also been recorded from other KwaZulu Natal areas outside iSimangaliso, from Umtamvuna in the south to the Tembe Elephant Park and Ndumo in the north. It has thus a broader provincial KZN lowland distribution and a more diverse habitat, which includes coastal, sand and riverine forests.
Both species were collected as by-catch during light-trapping surveys in the park, as part of an ongoing project on its rare, threatened and endemic species. Specimens were sent three years ago to the world specialist on this family, Thierry Bouyer of Chêneé, Belgium, who was at the time busy working on a revision of the Afrotropical species of the family. Their description appeared in French in the December 2012 volume of the journal Entomologia Africana (Vol 17, Issue 2, pp. 2-14) and has only now been brought to the attention of the collectors and the iSimangaliso Authority.