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UC Davis “Wasp Woman” Makes Gigantic Discovery

UC Davis entomologist Lynn Kimsey discovered a wasp with jaws longer than its front legs.

By Kathy Keatley Garvey 

This jaw-dropping, shiny black wasp appears to be the "Komodo Dragon" of the wasp family. Its jaws are longer than its front legs.

The new species of wasp that Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and professor of entomology at UC Davis, discovered on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, has scientists abuzz.

It’s huge. The male measures about two-and-a-half-inches long, Kimsey said. “Its jaws are so large that they wrap up either side of the head when closed. When the jaws are open they are actually longer than the male’s front legs. I don’t know how it can walk. The females are smaller but still larger than other members of their subfamily, Larrinae.”

Kimsey discovered the warrior wasp on the Mekongga Mountains in southeastern Sulawesi on a recent biodiversity expedition funded by a five-year grant from the International Cooperative Biodiversity Group Program.

The insect-eating predator belongs to the genus Dalara and family Crabronidae. “I’m going to name it Garuda, after the national symbol of Indonesisa,” Kimsey said. Garuda, a powerful mythical warrior that’s part human and part eagle, boasts a large wingspan, martial prowess and breakneck speed.

“The first time I saw the wasp I knew it was something really unusual,” said Kimsey, a noted wasp expert who oversees the Bohart Museum's global collection of seven million insect specimens, including 500,000 wasps. “I’m very familiar with members of the wasp family Crabronidae that it belongs to but had never seen anything like this species of Dalara. We don’t know anything about the biology of these wasps. They are only known from southwestern Sulawesi.”

In her entire career as entomologist, she’s discovered close to 300 new species. But on three trips to Sulawesi, she’s brought back to the Bohart Museum “hundreds, maybe thousands of new species.”

“It will take years, maybe generations, to go through them all,” Kimsey said.

“I consider Sulawesi one of the world’s top three islands for biodiversity—that along with Australia and Madagascar.”

Sulawsei, a large Indonesian island located between Borneo and New Guinea, is known not only for its endemic biodiversity, but its rainforest and its proximity (three degrees) to the equator.  Development threatens plant and animal life.

On the last three-week expedition, the UC Davis team of Lynn Kimsey, husband Robert Kimsey, a forensic entomologist/adjunct professor in the UC Davis Department of Entomology, and Alan Hitch, assistant curator of the Museum of Wildlife and Fish Biology, hooked up with 12 scientists from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI).

The 67-member expedition also included 12 members of Kendari's Chitaka mountaineering group, which guides mountain climbers to the top of the 9,117-foot volcanic peak; and a 40-member porter team that carried the equipment, set up camp and cooked the food, “which was steamed rice and ramen noodles three times a day,” she said.

“Eventually we had to leave because we ran out of food.”

The terrain was steep, slippery and overall, physically challenging, Lynn Kimsey said. “This part of Sulawesi gets about 400 inches of rain a year,” she said. “We were told that Sulawesi has a dry and rainy season. But the only difference we could see between the dry and rainy season is that during the dry season, it rains only in the afternoon.”

Kimsey expressed amazed at the biodiversity of the flora and fauna. “We saw a colonial spider web that stretched across two acres. The adult spiders were about two inches long.”

“We saw evidence of wild cows, anoa, found only in Sulawesi, and found the first record in that region of a (Sulawesi) palm civet, a weasel-like predator." 

The director of the Bohart Museum since 1989, Kimsey is an insect taxonomist, specializing in bees and wasps and insect diversity. She received her doctorate in entomology from UC Davis in 1979 and joined the faculty in 1989. [She also directs the Center for Biosystematics]-delete this the center is no longer.

Over the last four years, the international team of scientists has collected about a million specimens. Among the new species: a bat, two frogs, two lizards, two fish, a land crab and many insects.

Kimsey is a collaborator of a five-year $4 million grant awarded to UC Davis scientists in 2008 to study the biodiversity of fungi, bacteria, plants, insects and vertebrates on Sulawesi, all considered threatened by logging operations and mining developments. Much of the mountain was logged two decades ago and now there are plans for an open pit nickel mine, Kimsey said.

 “There’s talk of forming a biosphere reserve to preserve this,” she said. “There are so many rare and endangered species on Sulawesi that the world may never see.”

An international team of collaborators is conducting biodiversity surveys, as well as screening microbes and plants for applications to human health and energy needs, recommending strategies to conserve endangered species, and developing and encouraging local conservation, according to principal investigator Daniel Potter of the UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences. Other collaborators from UC Davis are from the UC Davis Herbarium, Museum of Wildlife and Fish Biology, Plant Pathology and the Phaff Yeast Culture Collection in the Department of Food Science and Technology.

Shortly after receiving the grant, Potter, a plant systematist at the Agricultural Experiment Station and director of the UC Davis Center for Plant Diversity, said: “The alarming rate at which biodiversity is being lost in many tropical regions has resulted in an urgent need for such efforts."
 
The International Cooperative Biodiversity Group Program is a multi-agency program led by the National Institutes of Health with contributions from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Department of Energy, and the National Science Foundation.

As for the warrior wasp that Lynn Kimsey discovered, it’s now being intensely studied at the Bohart Museum of Entomology where she has long been known as “The Wasp Woman,” an affectionate term signifying her specialty.

The director of the Bohart Museum since 1989, Kimsey is an insect taxonomist, specializing in bees and wasps and insect diversity. She received her doctorate in entomology from UC Davis in 1979 and joined the faculty in 1989. Kimsey served as the interim chair of the UC Davis Department from 2008 to 2009.

Her mentor, the late professor Richard M. Bohart (1913-2007), for whom the museum is named, was world-renowned for his expertise on wasps and mosquitoes. Kimsey was his last graduate student.

During his career, Bohart identified more than one million mosquitoes and wasps, many now displayed at the Bohart Museum, a teaching, research and public service facility that he founded on campus in 1946.

curtis jones November 14, 2011 at 11:45 PM
Lynn Kimsey: A very interesting article.. I had an encounter with a wasp (black with yellow bands and dots) on Sat. Nov. 5. It stung me below my right ear three times then vanished. I went to my doctor, took antibiotics. I located the wasp on 11/13 then found it's mate a few feet away, one very lethargic, the other one dead. One 3/4" long, the other 5/8". I have never seen wasps like this before and isn't it strange they should be out and about at this time of year? I found them in my living room? Sincerely: Curtis Jones 916.925.0263
Justin Cox (Editor) November 15, 2011 at 08:38 PM
I forwarded your comment to Kathy Keatley Garvey, who wrote the article. I'll let you know if I get a response. Wasp sting right below the ear? Sounds awful.

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