Grad Student Investigate Lady Gaga Treehopper

When most people think of insects, their experiences often don’t go much further than the carpenter ants that invade their homes from time to time. However, for entomologists like Brendan Morris, a graduate student studying at the University of Illinois, they are so much more. Almost like art pieces designed by nature, bright colored eyes and pointy horned bodies liven up university labs. Earlier this week, Morris began a study on a 30-year-old female treehopper specimen from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. He likes to call her Lady Gaga and for a good reason!

Treehoppers: Quirky Little Bugs

Treehoppers are quite wacky. This idea is because they display some very odd physical characteristics and behaviors. From peculiar branches that grow from their bodies to jagged protuberances, they stand out as one of evolution’s many wonders. They also have different behaviors, such as using vibrations against plant stems to sing to one another and sucking on plant juices for food. 

“Outrageous” and “flamboyant” are words that come to mind as Morris observes the insect. He is amazed by the level of diversity produced in the species after 40 million years of evolution. Considering that the species’ scientific name is Kaikaia gaga, Lady Gaga is more than a perfect fit for a Common name.

Phenotypes Play A Role

Physical characteristics contribute to the identification and naming of insects. Although treehoppers tend to have similar anatomy, the treehopper stood out for several reasons. Under a stethoscope, the most noticeable difference was the insect’s leg hair. 

It is almost as though this species of treehopper came from another place in time, expressing qualities linked closely to Old-World varieties. Entomologists believe that treehoppers originated in the Americas. However, the discovery of this treehopper challenges that belief. Some features that evoke curiosity in this regard are the shape of the insect’s head and the anatomy of the genitalia. 

The Search For More Treehoppers

Morris is currently trying to extract DNA from the species. He seeks to share his excitement with fellow bug lover and plans on traveling to Nicaragua in the future to discover more of the stylish bug.