One day in May of 2011, Shaun Winterton was looking at pictures of bugs on the Internet when something unusual caught his eye.
It was a close shot of a green lacewing — an insect he knew well — but on its wing was an unfamiliar network of black lines and a few flecks of blue.
Winterton, a senior entomologist at the California Department of Food and Agriculture, has seen a lot of bugs. But he hadn't seen this species before.
"I sent the link to a few colleagues of mine," Winterton told The Picture Show. "They hadn't seen it either. And I realized: This thing's new."
Excited, Winterton emailed Guek Hock Ping, the photographer who had posted the pictures of the unclassified lacewing on Flickr, a popular photo-sharing site.
Guek had noticed the insect while hiking the jungles of Malaysia, taken the photos, and then watched it fly away.
Winterton was disappointed. Without an intact specimen, there would be no way to confirm that this was in fact a new species.
Shaun L. Winterton/ ZooKeys
A diagram of the forewing of a Semachrysa jade lacewing with its distinctive markings.
A diagram of the forewing of a Semachrysa jade lacewing with its distinctive markings. Shaun L. Winterton/ ZooKeys
A full year later, Winterton received an email from the photographer; Guek had returned to the region of the original sighting and found another lacewing with the same wing pattern.
"He told me, 'I've got one in a container on my kitchen table — what should I do with it?' " Winterton says.
The specimen was sent to Steve Brooks, an entomologist at the Natural History Museum in London. Brooks confirmed that the lacewing was new to science. He also found a matching specimen that had been sitting in the museum's collection, unclassified, for decades.
The new species was dubbed Semachrysa jade — not after its pale green color, but after Winterton's daughter. It was introduced to the world in the latest issue of ZooKeys, a scientific journal focused on biodiversity. In keeping with the digital nature of their discovery, Winterton, Guek and Brooks wrote the paper from three different continents using a Google document.
The moral of the story? The world is full of potential naturalists, Winterton says. More and more people using high-quality cameras that capture the kind of detail scientists need for identification, and they are sharing these photos online.
"There's thousands of images a minute uploaded on Flickr," he says. "I think there are many more discoveries forthcoming, particularly as more people are getting out into the field."