Obscure by name, obscure by nature: A cryptic insect, little known, rarely seen

By Kieran Aland & Christine Lambkin, Queensland Museum

Among the numerous objects and specimens on display at the Queensland Museum are some with truly extraordinary stories! Today Kieran from the Discovery Centre joins us to share one of his favourite specimens from the museum’s displays.

This insect displayed in the Discovery Centre appears rather drab. It is so poorly known that it lacks a common name and the label simply describes it as “a lanternfly”. Indeed, the scientific name of this species, Eurinopsyche obscurata, further emphasises its obscure nature.

There are less than ten lanternfly specimens in Queensland Museum’s collection (among three to five million other insect specimens), so it would seem to be rather rare, as well as cryptic. However, not everything is as it first appears…

Eurinopsyche obscurata in the Discovery Centre.

The human eye is sensitive to Electromagnetic Radiation (EMR) between the wavelengths of approximately 380 nanometers and 750 nanometers. We refer to this portion of the EMR spectrum as “visible light”. At both ends of the visible light spectrum exists longer or shorter wavelength light. All EMR is light. Other organisms may perceive some of these other types of light – and thanks to modern technology, so can we.

Humans typically have a problem with perception. We tend to accept a situation as we see it. A biologist may perceive the abundance of nocturnal mammals on the basis of animals captured in traps, or what is seen when spotlighting. Similarly, we are informed of the abundance and diversity of insects with time-honoured techniques. It is easy to forget that we only perceive a very limited range of the available information. What does this mean in a practical sense? What do we see? What do we miss?

In the display of insects in the Discovery Centre, a strange insect represents a group known as the Lanternflies. The label simply names Eurinopsyche obscurata as “A lanternfly”. Even veteran entomologists have difficulty spotting Eurinopsyche obscurata in the wild. Does this mean that it is rare?

The Lanternflies are not actually Flies (Order Diptera), they are Bugs (Order Hemiptera), and most of the members of their family (Fulgoridae) are camouflaged and are very difficult to find. This is amply demonstrated by the photo of the Lanternfly on a tree trunk.

Can you see me? Eurinopsyche obscurata on a tree trunk.

Despite the camouflage, the specimen pictured was seen from 25 metres distance and numerous other individuals were spotted on the same evening. How was this possible? The answer is in the image taken with a device capable of detecting infrared (in this case a Pulsar Accolade XP50 device).

The Lanternfly is clearly seen at a distance as a bright spot in the image, which indicates that it is warmer than its surroundings. This image challenges several perceptions, firstly that Eurinopsyche obscurata is rare, and secondly that insects live at the same temperature as their environment.

Eurinopsyche obscurata spotted with the aid of infrared equipment. It appears as a bright spot on a dark tree trunk, indicating that it is much warmer than its surroundings.

Some clearly do not. So, what have we been missing? Most likely… a lot! With infrared-sensitive equipment, nocturnal mammals can be located at roughly eight times the frequency than with a hand-held or head-mounted spotlight and, for the first time, we can watch the natural behaviour of warm-bodied nocturnal creatures in total darkness.  Numerous recent technological advances provide opportunities to re-think our understanding of the natural world, and our place within it. This is just one example.

You can see this amazing specimen for yourself in the Discovery Centre at the Queensland Museum.

Do you have an interesting question or mystery object? Our helpful and knowledgeable staff at the Discovery Centre can answer your questions through our Ask an Expert inquiry service.