AsianScientist (Mar. 9, 2021) – For the first time in over a century, researchers in Singapore have described a new species of luminous firefly. Their findings were published in Animals.
With their characteristic bioluminescent glow, fireflies are a familiar sight on hot summer nights worldwide. Contrary to popular belief, fireflies are actually an extremely diverse group of beetles classified under the family Lampyridae, with over 2,000 species worldwide.
In Singapore, the last luminous firefly described was Pteroptyx bearni Olivier all the way back in 1909—a species commonly found in Southeast Asian mangroves. However, with no new sightings since then, the species is now considered locally extinct.
Twelve years ago, in 2009, Singapore’s National Parks Board (NParks) embarked on a nationwide survey of fireflies across 14 sites. In the process, they documented 11 firefly species, including an unidentified species the team dubbed Luciola sp. 2 after the firefly genus Luciola.
In 2019, researchers from the National University of Singapore and NParks revisited the firefly habitat located in Nee Soon Swamp Forest, also known as the last remaining freshwater swamp forest in the country. The team managed to successfully collect additional specimens of Luciola sp. 2.
Since the genus Luciola contains at least 280 species, the team turned to modern DNA techniques as well as delicate dissections of internal organs to confirm that Luciola sp. 2 was in fact a unique species. Specifically, they employed genome skimming, which involves the shallow sequencing of the organism’s genome to collect data on highly repetitive regions.
Though these skims are effectively the tip of the genomic iceberg, analyzing the resulting sequences still provides powerful insights into the evolutionary history of the new Luciola species at a fraction of the cost. True enough, results showed that the new species was indeed genetically and morphologically distinct, leading the team to officially dub the firefly Luciola singapura (Singapore firefly).
Less than five millimeters long, the Singapore firefly is especially notable as fireflies are rarely documented in freshwater swamp forests. Despite the small and highly urbanized nature of the country, the discovery of a new species also emphasizes the need for continued local biodiversity research.
“When we first encountered this species, we knew it was interesting because the specimens were collected from a freshwater swamp forest in the central catchment area of Singapore—fireflies are rarely reported from this type of habitat. Furthermore, it did not fit the descriptions of any known firefly species to-date,” said lead author Dr. Wan Faridah Akmal Jusoh from the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM) at NUS.
“The discovery of this new species is very significant to science in Singapore, and shows the importance of conserving the last freshwater swamp forest here,” added Mr. Lim Liang Jim of NParks. “We currently have a species recovery plan for Singapore fireflies and this new discovery will also contribute to the understanding of the species and ecology of fireflies in Singapore.”
Source: National University of Singapore; Illustration: Shelly Liew/Asian Scientist Magazine.
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