University of Pretoria – Neuroptera (2012)

Afrotropical Neuroptera Biodiversity Database

Project Details

Grantee Organization: University of Pretoria
Grant Amount: $86,000
Contact: Mervyn W. Mansell
Contact Email: mansel 'atsign' mweb.co.za
Funding Dates: 6/15/12 - 6/14/15
Project Links:
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Project News

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Background

The Insect order Neuroptera, collectively known as “lacewings” comprises 17 families worldwide, 13 of which occur in southern Africa. This region is recognized as a global epicentre of lacewing diversity and endemism. Relic populations of the archaic order Megaloptera also occur in South Africa. The larvae of all species are predacious, while adults are important pollinators of indigenous plants, especially of the rich Cape flora. Southern Africa harbors many endemic taxa with limited distributions, rendering them extremely vulnerable to habitat destruction through agriculture and urban expansion. They are consequently a key indicator group, which requires special protection as a unique component of the world’s third-most biodiverse region.

Key Objectives and Activities

The key objective of this project is the documentation and consequent conservation of this unique, but highly vulnerable fauna. The effort’s mission is the survey and documentation of southern African Neuroptera and Megaloptera to determine their biology, biogeography and conservation status and, ultimately, the protection of this unique component of the region’s rich biodiversity heritage. The grant project plan includes: (1) a biodiversity audit (survey, collection and documentation of specimens); (2) systematic revisions, molecular and phylogenetic analyses, (3) biology and ecological requirements; and (4) distribution patterns and predictive modelling. All of these are aimed at contributing to student participation and training and public awareness.  Ultimately, these resources and knowledge will establish the conservation status and support protective measures of the various taxa, especially the unique endemic fauna of southern Africa.

Planned Outputs and Outcomes

  • Complete documentation of the National and Ditsong Museum collections. Additional data from Bulawayo Museum (Zimbabwe) as well as two private collections.
  • Provide these data to a public domain portal, such as GBIF and SABIF (South African Biodiversity Information Facility).
  • Use these data for GIS analyses and the identification of rare and vulnerable populations to inform authorities of where conservation areas should be prioritized.
  • Publication of the Afrotropical catalogue.
  • DNA sequencing, mainly of families Psychopsidae, Mantispidae, Nemopteridae and Myrmeleontidae to resolve taxonomic questions and the compilation of phylogenies with associated timelines.
  • Publication of revisions of major genera of Nemopteridae and Myrmeleontidae, with descriptions of new species.
  • Compilation of a photographic library.
  • Training of database personnel.
  • Training of post graduate students. Currently two PhD and one MSc.

Last Updated: April 11th, 2017

Results to Date

  • The project has made substantial progress in databasing Neuroptera and Megaloptera specimens from public and private collections. Nearly 30,000 specimens have been identified and fully databased, including geospatial (locality), temporal, and bibliographic data.
  • An updated inventory of all valid South African taxa was provided to the South African Tree of Life (SATOL), a project of the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI).
  • Gene sequencing provided insight into the evolutionary relationships of 72 species of one group (Psychopsidae) and provided evidence for multiple “species complexes” (where a single species is shown by genetic evidence to be several very closely related species) in another group (Mantispidae).
  • Behavior studies are exploring the additional ecological role Neuropertans play as pollinators as well as predators.
  • The taxonomic dataset of Neuroptera and Megaloptera developed through this project provided the framework for the University of Capetown’s Virtual Museum mapping tool, LacewingMAP.  The team presented on the databasing component at the Symposium for Contemporary Conservation Practice, which was the first year the symposium has included content related to conservation of invertebrates.
  • Drawing from experience gained during this project, Dr. Mansell presented a database training session for the Southern African Development Community (SADC) fruit fly projects.
  • Three postgraduate projects were completed and degrees awarded. Furthermore, two additional PhD projects focused on enhancing knowledge of the Cape arrow-winged lacewings are ongoing.

Lessons Learned

At the outset of this project, the researchers completely underestimated the complexity and time-consuming nature of accurately recording data from museum specimens. Almost all specimens are only superficially documented (limited by label size) and none have associated geographical coordinates (latitude, longitude). Much of the collection, especially the Ditsong Museum, contain valuable historical data, but many place names are now unknown and have to be painstakingly researched and associated with geographic coordinates. This is enormously time-consuming.

Another underestimate regarding Neuroptera is the confused taxonomic state of some groups (poor original descriptions and consequent synonymy), which makes identification difficult, as well as the large number of undescribed taxa, which now require documentation. Due to the difficult nature of identification, inexperienced data capturers often had difficulty producing quality data sets. This emphasizes how important it is to have an expert and experienced systematists at the helm of this type of project to ensure data quality, which begins with accurate identifications.

Additionally, over the course of their work, the researchers realized that no single database format fits all eventualities. It is therefore essential to have control over project dataset requirements, and to allow the database design to be flexible and evolve to meet needs as they arise.

Related Publications

Mansell, MW; JB Ball (2016) A remarkable new lichenophilous Pamexis species from the Hantam Karoo of South Africa (Neuroptera: Myrmeleontidae: Palparini) Zootaxa. 4184(1): 171 – 183. (link)

Mansell, MW (2013) First records of the antlion genus Solter Navás from southern Africa, with description of a new species (Neuroptera: Myrmeleontidae: Myrmecaelurini). Zootaxa.  3731(3): 381–385. (link)

Primary Software Platforms

The software platform is a Relational Database developed in Microsoft Access that enables programming in SQL (Sequel Server) a universal and standard programming language, to promote interoperability for subsequent movement of data across multiple platforms. Data are then transferred using the Darwin Core transfer protocol. This enables development of databases to suit particular needs and which are sufficiently flexible to meet future challenges, without being limited by commercially available models that rapidly become obsolete.

Notes from JRS

JRS is proud to support this important effort to increase the knowledge of and the access to data regarding this important insect order.  We particularly appreciate the breadth of the project to digitize public and private collections, undertake field collections and to train students.  An exciting development is the discovery by the project’s experts of new lacewing taxa whose identity might only be unraveled by DNA analysis.  JRS has supported the reallocation of project funds from other purposes to the needed molecular analysis – just the kind of adaptive management to opportunities and challenges that reflects great communication with the foundation and best practices in project management.  The Lacewing project is one of many in the JRS portfolio that has discovered that museum collections were either much larger and more poorly preserved or labelled than anticipated. We’ve learned that future projects to digitize collections might merit a ‘survey’ phases as a first step to the project.

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