Finding the Alluvial Forest: Rediscovering Rare Insect Species

In the Leipzig floodplain forest, biologists have discovered an insect long considered extinct in Germany: the mosquito-like bug (Bittacus hageni). The snake-like insect was lost for 130 years and has only been found once in the Harz Mountains since then. Now a sample of this animal to a biology student in Leipzig has been posted online by chance. It is the first record of this species in East Germany and confirms the great importance of alluvial forests for biodiversity.

Despite its proximity to the city, the Leipzig Alluvial Forest is a biodiversity hotspot. In this humid area of ​​forest, now dominated by hardwoods such as ash, maple and oak, there are many species of animals and plants that have become rare in the rest of Central Europe. The Leipzig floodplain forest covers an area of ​​about 2,500 hectares, and is one of the largest preserved floodplain forests in Central Europe. That is why, among other things, biologists from the University of Leipzig and the German Center for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) conduct regular research here.

Bycatch on a trip

However, the current discovery was not so much the result of targeted research as it was purely coincidental: the insect was discovered by a student at the University of Leipzig on a trip to the alluvial forest area. Students also use nets to catch insects in order to practice methodology and species identification. The female student got into the net with a delicate insect, with long wings and legs reminiscent of a snake. “As soon as I saw what I found, it immediately dawned on me that it must be something very special and immediately sent the photos to my colleagues,” explains flight leader Lisa Hahn.

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An evaluation of the recordings confirmed her assumption: the insect turned out to be a female specimen of the Mosquito-like mosquito (Bittacus hageni). These about two centimeters long representatives of beaked flies are ambulance hunters who catch mosquitoes and other smaller insects. Bittacus hageni is one of only two species of this genus native to Europe and extremely rare on the entire continent. In Germany it was considered extinct for more than 130 years, until a zoologist in Göttingen discovered a specimen at the edge of the Harz mountains in 2003. However, there were no further discoveries.

The first guide to East Germany

So the discovery of mosquitoes in Leipzig is a godsend. “It is very difficult and a lucky coincidence to prove this species, as it lives very cryptically and only appears to occur occasionally,” says Detlev Bernhard of the University of Leipzig. With targeted searches, Hahn was able to track down two more specimens of the species in the Leipzig floodplain forest. These discoveries are the first evidence of this species in East Germany. Scientists want to take advantage of this opportunity to create a genetic fingerprint for this type of insect for the first time. Since the genetic markers characteristic of this species can be accessed in DNA databases, this facilitates the personalization of future discoveries.

According to the scientists, the discovery of mosquitoes also underscores how important natural habitats such as alluvial forests are to biodiversity. “This discovery also underscores the outstanding importance of the Leipzig Sedimentary Forest as a sanctuary for threatened species and a special habitat in Europe, which is essential to maintaining its current size and shape,” says Bernard.

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Source: University of Leipzig. Professional Articles Insect News & Reports 65, 2021/3

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