Trond Larsen was lucky enough to notice and photograph the tiny insect—about five millimeters long—during an international expedition of field biologists to the mountainous region of southeastern Suriname in 2012.
It was a quick trick done “with much difficulty, as they jump away very fast,” said Larsen, of Conservation International’s Rapid Assessment Program (RAP).
That’s also why Larsen wasn’t able to collect a specimen of the tufted bug, which is needed to compare it to other insects and figure out if it’s a known species.
Another thing that makes identification tough is that the planthopper was in the nymph stage of development, which means that it looks very different from adults.
Some insects undergo simple metamorphosis (sometimes called incomplete or gradual metamorphosis), meaning they molt into a slightly larger nymph and then finally into an adult with complete wings, according to Leeanne Alonso of the nonprofit Global Wildlife Conservation, who was also part of the expedition. Alonso noted that the young insect’s “wing buds” are visible in the photograph.
Paging Don King
As for that spectacular fountain of Don King plumage, the scientists say it’s a waxy secretion many planthoppers excrete from their abdomen, which may protect the bugs against predators and parasites.
You’d think something like that would attract, not distract. But predators of this insect would be very tiny, and grabbing those waxy tufts might be challenging—or the hairs might even break off, like a lizard’s tail, letting the insect live another day.
In addition to the odd planthopper, the scientists also found an incredible array of biodiversity in the Suriname rain forest, collecting data on 1,378 species.
“It’s one of my favorite places on Earth,” said Alonso, though she notes that gold mining is threatening the pristine nature of the area.
Lead Image: A photograph of the young planthopper and its unusual tuft. TROND LARSEN