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Lost Tribe of Leafhoppers Found, May Lead to Better Controls

By Hank Becker
October 28, 1999

A newly discovered "lost tribe" of insects may give scientists more clues to better predict crop losses caused by leafhoppers.

Agricultural Research Service entomologist Stuart H. McKamey has described a new genus and species of the leafhopper tribe Megophthalmini from the Andes mountains of Tachira, Venezuela. It's the first record of this tribe to be found in the New World south of Mexico. Knowing an insect's identity is the first step in controlling it.

Based at the ARS Systematic Entomology Laboratory in Washington, D.C., McKamey identifies and classifies new species and publishes identification aids. He also provides identification services for regulatory agencies. At U.S. ports of entry, this helps USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service intercept invasive species--those not indigenous to the U.S.

Of the 20,000 known species of leafhoppers, more than 150 species in more than 65 genera transmit crop diseases. Many leafhoppers attack U.S. crops such as corn, rice, citrus, peach, tomato, potato and sugarbeet. Some 23 species transmit a single disease: Pierce's disease of grape.

The lost tribe of South American Megophthalmini leafhoppers--previously known in North America, Africa and Europe--has novel traits that point to relationships to other leafhopper subfamilies, according to McKamey.

The new species he identified is not a crop pest, but some of its relatives are. Better understanding the familial relationships can lead to more accurate predictions of leafhoppers' pest potential. This task has been hampered by major gaps in knowledge of various leafhopper groups including the Megophthalmini.

Farmers' efforts to control leafhoppers have been hampered by the insects' seasonal migration--often from non-crop plants that harbor crop diseases. The extent of this disease reservoir is not well known, because too little is known about the leafhoppers' plant preferences.

ARS is USDA's chief research agency.

Scientific contact: Stuart H. McKamey, ARS Systematic Entomology Laboratory, Washington, D.C., phone (202) 382-1779, fax (202) 786-9422,