Two new species of cockroach new to science and that can only be found in Malta have been discovered by a local naturalist, according to a newly-published study.
Both species are tiny and live in the natural environment.
Arnold Sciberras said he was elated to contribute knowledge of these two new endemic species to the world and hoped that people understood the significance of the findings.
“Even though we’re living in a concrete jungle, we’re still finding new species in 2021 and this shows how rich the Maltese islands still are in pockets,” he said.
“We should be proud that Malta is still offering unique species you don’t find anywhere else in the world,” he added.
Sciberras named one of the new species Malta’s cockroach, Kokroċ ta’ Malta (Ectobuis melitensis) because it had been located in various places around the island.
The other he has called Jeffrey’s Fungus Rock cockroach, Wirdiena tal-Ġebla tal-Ġeneral ta’ Jeffrey (Hetergamisca jeffreyana), after his botanist brother Jeffrey Sciberras, for his dedication to years of research and for “trailing him everywhere”.
Very few people would appreciate being named after a cockroach, he joked, but, then again, the insect was sorely misunderstood and its significance to biodiversity overlooked.
While globally there were 30 pest species, which had adapted to live off the waste produced by humans, there were over 4,000 species of cockroach which had enormous ecological importance, serving different functions such as pollinators and decomposers.
Globally, three quarters of the food chain depends on cockroaches
“People don’t realise that, as much as we rely for our survival on bees, this is also the case with cockroaches, since globally three quarters of the food chain depend on them,” he said.
Studying these insects since he was a teenager, Sciberras explained that the two new species were the results of decades of intensive fieldwork and one of the greatest discoveries in his career so far.
He explained both were ‘cryptic’ and ‘elusive’, so little was so far known about them.
The Maltese cockroach is a few millimetres in size and resembles a moth.
It is found on a grass that grows here but while the grass is common, the cockroach is believed to be endangered and rare, Sciberras said.
Jeffrey’s Fungus Rock cockroach, which is even rarer, was discovered when Sciberras and his brother were studying lizards, years ago, on Fungus Rock in Dwejra.
A colony of aquatic marine birds nest in the area and Sciberras discovered the insect living in one of the birds’ nests.
He was never able to locate the insect living anywhere else.
“We believe it feeds off bird’s faeces, cleaning the nest up. The family of this insect lives in Africa but that is about all we know,” he said.
Published this week, the study is entitled Cockroach (Blattodea, Blaberoidea) fauna of the Maltese Islands, with descriptions of two new species. It is authored by Sciberras and cockroach taxonomist expert Horst Bohn and is the first on cockroaches in Malta since the 1980s.
From the end of World War II until the 1980s it was believed there were seven species of cockroach on the islands. This study extends that number to 21.
Some of these are indigenous and had been overlooked in the previous study but many of these were introduced into Malta, whether imported as pet food for reptiles or accidentally brought over hidden among imported material or on vessels.
Sciberras is currently working on a book about Maltese cockroaches, with the aim of correcting misconceptions that surround the insects.
He also hopes the research will lead to conservation projects to safeguard the endemic and indigenous species, which play such an essential role in maintaining biodiversity.
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