Every once in a while, a scientific work comes along of such import that it is impossible not to cover it. Such is the paper “Planthoppers of Iran” (well, actually “An annotated checklist of the planthoppers of Iran (Hemiptera, Auchenorrhyncha, Fulgoromorpha) with distribution data“).
Now, I’ll wager you know what an Iran is. But did you know it had planthoppers? And do you know what planthoppers is?
Actually, I think humble little papers like these highlight both the important neglected groups and important neglected places on Earth. I’ve never been to Iran, but I bet the seat of the once-mighty Persian Empire — a land, as I understand it, of high peaks and untamed beauty — is full of wonderful, odd, neglected creatures. And I worry about them.
I worry about the people of Iran, too, probably even more. But what about all the wild things out there, in places like Iran and Afghanistan? Are they ok? Are any wonders that we’ve never even described yet on the verge of extinction? It’s also possible that living under such repressive or disorganized regimes prevents the kind of development that’s been so destructive to life in freer countries (Note: This is not an argument in favor of repressive, totalitarian, nuclear-weapons-threatening regimes). No way to know right now, at least from my perspective here in sheltered Colorado. I just wonder about it sometimes, like when I stumble on papers like “Planthoppers of Iran”. It could have easily been “Liverworts of Zimbabwe” or “Dung Beetles of North Korea”*.
I should also note that the coauthors of the paper are an Iranian scientist and a British scientist, and the fact that such collaborations are possible even in such tense times as these is to me, quite hopeful.
Before we leave this topic, a word about, well, planthoppers! Because they are fabulous, unless you happen to be a plant. Planthoppers are bugs that suck juices from plants. Usually, these juices are the sugary fluids found in the phloem (flow’-em), the collection of plant pipes that transport food up and down a plant. Sitting on a plant sucking juices all day makes you a pretty big sitting target, so planthoppers often mimic leaves, similar to the way their close relatives the treehoppers mimic thorns and other plant bits.
Planthoppers are true bugs in the taxon Hemiptera, along with the aphids, cicadas, leafhoppers, psyllids, scale insects, mealybugs (which I covered here), spittlebugs, and whiteflies. They’re hemimetabolous, which means they grow through a bunch of nymphal instars (how I love that word! Instar!) that look more or less like little adults on the way to being an adult. No giant squelching larva necessary. They tend to have sucking, needle-like mouthparts united into a “rostrum”**.
When you exclude the true bugs (Heteroptera), the rest of the Hemiptera are “plant bugs”, which tend to have two pairs of wings held tent-like over the abdomen, a large pronotum (plate-like cover of the first body segment), hind legs adapted for hopping, and a tendency toward waxy body secretions (not as gross as it sounds, unless you are a mealybug or scale insect).
Many of these plant bugs also poop out a sweet sugar solution called honeydew that ants go crazy for. This stuff can also land on plants where it feeds black plant fungal pathogens called sooty molds. And if you pay attention on warm, sunny summer days as you bicycle under big, shady, arching trees, you can often feel tiny drops of this honeydew misting your face. I’m not kidding.
Planthoppers in particular are distinguished by two shared traits (homologies): a Y-shaped anal vein in the forewing, and a special thickened, three-segmented antenna with a generally egg-shaped second segment. But, as with most things, I’m sure planthoppers are usually recognized by someone who has seen one before looking at one and saying, “Oh, that looks like a planthopper.” (the bauplan concept). They tend to look like plant parts and occasionally hop; hence, planthoppers.
Interestingly, though some planthoppers can cause serious crop problems, surprisingly few do given how they make a living. In the United States, the citrus flatid planthopper is a notable exception. One damaging thing planthoppers do par excellence is transmit phytoplasmas, which are absolutely fascinating bacterial parasites of plants. One day I will do a whole post on them. For now, I will ask you only to imagine a bacterium without a cell wall that is capable of assuming any number of odd, blobby, elongated shapes, not unlike a cross between Gumby and an amoeba. It’s life is restricted to the juices of plants, or the bodies of planthoppers, their hosts. And they have some of the smallest genomes in existence — rivalling the miniscule genome of Mycoplasma genitalium, their human-pelvis-parasitizing kin. (If Mycoplasma and Phyotplasma sound similar, there is a reason for that; they are related).
Finally, just so you can see how charming these little insects can be, here is a video of a beautiful planthopper, Laternaria candelarius, colloquially called a Lantern Fly. It is found sucking sap of longan and lychee trees (if the sap is anything like the fruit, I’m totally with them on this) in southeast Asia.
Oh, and we totally need a “Planthoppers of Iran” calendar. Just sayin’.
*which, surprisingly, seem to have assumed power several decades ago in that country. Can I just say how much I loved the Time Magazine cover with the headline “L’il Kim”?
** Latin for “beak”, also a word used for the prow of a ship with a naval ram and for a lectern, because the speaker’s stand in the Roman Forum was decorated with the beaks of ships captured in battle and was consequently called the “Rostrum”. But I digress.
Secrets of the Universe: Past, Present, FutureX