The newly described species, named Nelloptodes gretae after Greta Thunberg, is less than a millimetre in length © Michael Darby
Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg has been honoured with a new species of beetle named after her.
The newly described Nelloptodes gretae belongs to a group of some of the smallest known free-living animals.
The new species belongs to family of beetles called Ptiliidae.
Despite their global distribution, the beetles are not particularly well known because of their miniature size. They are so small that they are even dwarfed by some unicellular organisms.
The beetles are usually found in the leaf litter and soil, feeding on fungal hyphae and spores. While there are a few dozen species known from the UK alone, in the tropics their diversity is poorly understood.
Michael Darby is a Scientific Associate at the Museum and has honoured Greta by naming a new species after her.
‘The family that I work on are some of the smallest known free-living creatures,’ explains Michael. ‘They are not parasitic and are not living inside other creatures. Few of them measure more than a millimetre long.
‘I suspect that this could very well be the first time a species has been named after Greta. I don’t know of any other beetle named after her, that’s for sure.’
A force for change
Over the past year, Greta Thunberg has emerged as a prominent climate activist, leading protests and addressing political leaders around the world.
Greta first came to be known for her ‘skolstrejk för klimatet’ (school strike for the climate) demonstration in 2018. Instead of attending school, the then-15-year-old protested outside the Swedish parliament the lack of action that politicians were taking to tackle the climate crisis.
The movement has resulted in some of the largest climate strikes in world history, gathering millions of protesters in over 150 countries worldwide to increase pressure on those in power to act.
‘I’m really a great fan of Greta,’ says Michael. ‘She is a great advocate for saving the planet and she is amazing at doing it, so I thought that this was a good opportunity to recognise that.’
Animated full stops
The newly described species was originally collected in Kenya between 1964 and 1965 by an entomologist called William Brock. He took samples of soil from around east Africa which until now have been stored in the Museum’s collections.
Michael went through these samples using high-powered microscopes to observe and photograph the tiny beetles that were caught up in the substrate. He has been able to describe not only the new species named for Greta but also a new genus and eight other new species of Ptiliidae in the same sample.
Nelloptodes gretae is pale yellow and gold, and measures just 0.79 millimetres. With no eyes or wings, it is distinguishable by a small pit found between where the eyes should go.
‘These beetles are so very small that my wife has described them as being like animated full stops,’ says Michael. ‘But actually many are a whole lot smaller than a full stop.
‘I’d also like to stress that I’ve not named this species after Greta because it is small – it’s just that this is the group that I work on.’
In fact, Michael has named several species of Ptiliidae after prominent people, including one for Sir David Attenborough, meaning that N. gretae is certainly in prestigious company.
As Greta herself famously said, ‘Many people say that Sweden is just a small country and it doesn’t matter what we do.
‘But I’ve learned you are never too small to make a difference.’