Insect With 'Almost Completely Unknown' Biology Found in Remote Rainforest

A new species of extremely rare leafhopper with almost completely unknown biology has been found by a British scientist working in Uganda.

The new species was discovered by Anglia Ruskin University (ARU)'s Applied Ecology Research Group Scientist Dr. Alvin Helden.

Helden found the species, which he named Phlogis kibalensis, while working with students in the Ugandan rainforest of Kibale National Park in the west of the country. His remarkable discovery was reported in the journal Zootaxa.

The insect is so rare that its closet relative, another kind of leafhopper insect, was last seen in 1969 in the Central African Republic.

"I knew it was really interesting. It was only later, back in the UK, as I started to identify the specimens that I had found that I realised that it had not been found before. Fairly quickly I found a drawing that was clearly very similar. That led me to see if the specimen I had collected was the same species or not. When I realised it was a different species from the one in the drawing, it was very exciting. Finding a new species was something I always wanted to do," Helden told Newsweek.

"Only three specimens of this type of leafhopper have ever been found. Why? It could be that they are genuinely very rare, but it is also possible that they are really hard to find, or we are just not looking in the right way or in the right places," he said.

The new leafhopper discovered by Helden has a rust-brown and white coloration and a metallic sheen. As with other leafhopper species, the insect has uniquely-shaped male reproductive organs. ARU said that in the case of Phlogis kibalensis, the organ was partially leaf-shaped.

Leafhoppers are closely related to cicadas but much smaller in size. They live and feed on plants, sucking out sap for sustenance.

Speaking with ARU, Helden said that the rarity of animals like the Phlogis kibalensis meant other animals that are equally hard to find could become extinct before human beings ever come to know them properly due to biodiversity loss.

"There is so much still to find out, not just about this species but so many others, including the many species that are still waiting to be discovered. It is incredibly sad to think that some species will become extinct before we are even aware of their existence," he said.

"There are some wonderful places, like the Kibale National Park in Uganda, where wildlife will survive, but outside national parks and reserves, the amount of rainforest that has been cleared in the tropics is devastating.

"Rare species could be living anywhere, but deforestation means it is inevitable that we will be losing species before we have discovered them."

Update 01/28/22, 16:30 GMT: This article was updated to include quotes from Alvin Helden.

Leafhopper insect known as Phlogis kibalensis
A new species of insect known as Phlogis kibalensis. The insect is so rare that the most recent recorded sighting of one of a similar species occurred in the Central African Republic in 1969. Dr Alvin Helden/ARU