Unknown Upstate: Small Wonder

Nature is full of surprises for those who pay attention.

Nature photo
The new two-marked treehopper species discovered by biology professor Jonathan Storm makes its home on a Carolina silverbell tree.

A bike riding lesson on a local trail one fall day took biology professor Jonathan Storm down an unexpected path.

Storm had taken his then-3-year-old daughter to the Drayton Mills trail to get the hang of balancing on two wheels. Their leisurely progress – Storm’s daughter stopped frequently to stretch or catch Fowler’s toads – gave Storm plenty of time to observe the trees around the trail. That’s when something interesting caught his eye.

“I’m looking at tree branches along the trail, and I happened to notice these white markings on the thin tree branches that kind of look like toothpaste,” he recalls.

Intrigued, he correctly surmised it was the egg mass of an insect, which he spotted sitting a little farther down the twig next to another egg mass, so small and still it would be easy to miss.

Storm recognized the insect, since he’d seen one a year or two earlier and had looked it up then – a two-marked treehopper, so called because of two distinct yellow marks on its back. But he also knew they were very specific to host trees, and the tree he was looking at, a Carolina silverbell, was not one he’d seen associated with the species.

“So I thought, oh, that’s interesting, I’ll look it up to see if this is a host they’re documented to be on,” he says.

After doing a little research, Storm could find no records in the scientific literature about the two-marked treehopper laying eggs on silverbells, so he contacted an expert in the species at the University of Missouri to see if he knew of some record. “And he said no, you’ve found a new species,” Storm says.

Tree Hopper insect
The tiny treehopper and its egg mass are easy to miss.

“I was pleasantly surprised,” he says. “It checked off one of my life goals, which has always been that I wanted to discover some new species during my life. And to do it randomly, while teaching my daughter to ride her bike, is kind of nice.”

With millions of insects in the world, new discoveries aren’t uncommon. Storm says every 10 years or so, someone finds a new species of treehopper. And in the tropics of South America or Africa, uncovering a new species isn’t all that surprising. “But to do it in South Carolina, in a park in Spartanburg, is not as easy to do,” he says.

It underscores a lesson Storm frequently shares with his students. “You never know what you’re going to discover if you just pay attention to the natural world.”