In the 1970s, Stephen J. Roman was working as a juvenile corrections officer in the Houston area and hunting for beetles in his spare time. He was especially excited about tiger beetles, a diverse group of small, speedy predators with jewel-toned shells. Roman often spotted the eye-catching bugs foraging across the roads and salty soils near Sour Lake, an hour east of Houston. Guidebooks described the local beetle as Eunota circumpicta, the cream-edged tiger beetle. But the beetles Roman was seeing behaved differently and had different colors—enough so that he wondered whether he was looking at a different species. 

More than fifty years later, Roman’s suspicions have been borne out. In a recently published paper, the citizen scientist joined Rice University biologist Scott Egan, William Godwin of the Sam Houston State Natural History Collections, and other scientists in announcing the discovery of a new species hidden in plain sight: Eunota houstoniana, named in honor of the greater Houston region.

Tiger beetles are fascinating insects, says Dan Duran, an entomologist at New Jersey’s Rowan University and an author on the study. They’re incredibly swift—among the fastest living things on earth for their size—and deadly predators of any invertebrates smaller than they are. Some of the roughly three thousand tiger beetle species are two-inch-long giants, flightless and nocturnal, while others are as small as five millimeters. Many gleam like metallic jewels, with rainbow patterns that have endeared them to amateur naturalists for decades. (The reason for these bright hues remains a mystery, Duran said: bright colors usually warn off predators from toxic animals or attract mates, and neither seems to be the case for tiger beetles—who, in a small tragedy, can’t even see their own colors.)

The family’s incredible diversity comes in part from its origins. Tiger beetles seem to have originated back in the Jurassic period, at least 145 million years ago, or possibly even earlier, according to Duran. As the continents drifted apart, tiger beetles went along for the ride. Today, there are three thousand species scattered across every continent except Antarctica. Of the 125 tiger beetles found in the United States and Canada, half of them live in Texas, Duran said. 

Among those is Eunota circumpicta, a species with multiple subspecies, found in patches of salty soils throughout the state. “There’s all these populations that are scattered; some of them are very far from each other,” Duran said. “Usually when you get geographic isolation in populations, you wonder if maybe they’re not even the same species.”

Egan and Duran had been lab-mates while both were studying for their PhDs at Vanderbilt University, and they’d long discussed working on a project together. After Duran began talking with Roman, the trio decided to see whether his suspicions about the Houston tiger beetle were accurate. They examined museum collections, surveyed observations on the website iNaturalist—where professional and amateur scientists record photographic sightings of organisms—and recruited volunteers to survey likely bits of habitat. 

Historically, Egan said, scholars have leaned primarily on physical anatomy to determine species differences. Now, however, there are many more tools available with which to tackle the question. As they examined the insect’s anatomy, behavior, and genetics, the team concluded they were looking at a separate species that had been hiding in plain sight. “There were so many different analyses that all concurrently said the same thing: that this is highly divergent,” Duran said. “When so many different analyses are giving you one answer, it’s hard to deny the reality of that.”

The species may have been discovered just in time, Egan said. While the team found historical records of the beetle from nine locations surrounding Houston, they were only able to collect living beetles at four of them. Others, including a set of salt flats on the road to Galveston, had been paved over and developed into strip malls. While the beetle may once have been relatively common throughout the entire Houston area, the growth of one of America’s largest metropolises seems to have squeezed it out of much of the region.  

The discovery is a good reminder, however, that even a giant city can produce new species. Estimates of the undescribed diversity of insects suggest there may be ten to twenty million insects left to discover, even in 2024, said Egan—whose team has discovered roughly one new species per year in the decade he’s been at Rice. “There’s been a steady stream of discoveries my lab has made,” including predatory wasps, tiger beetles, and gall wasps—a kind of wasp that induces tumors in trees to lay its eggs in, thus creating microhabitats for other insects. Even more mind-boggling: a single live oak at Rice, next to one of the biology buildings, is home to multiple insects previously unknown to science, he said. 

But when Duran began working on tiger beetles, researchers told him he was wasting his time. They were a popular group, with researchers having described hundreds of tiger beetle species throughout the twentieth century. There wasn’t anything left to find, he was told. “I got fourteen species I’ve discovered that say otherwise,” he said. 

Part of the joy of finding a new species, of course, is getting to name it. Egan once named a wasp with a gruesome tendency to entomb its hosts in oak sarcophagi after the Egyptian god Set, who dismembered and entombed his brother. Duran, describing a stunning desert tiger beetle, named it after the Jundland Wastes of Star Wars. But when it came to the latest species, the team decided to name it after the city that had devoured so much of its territory. Hence: Houstoniana.

“There’s research that suggests species named after a region are less likely to go extinct, because they get more conservation interest,” Egan said. “I think awareness became, for me, part of the program. How do I get this thing to reach a wider audience than the twelve taxonomists who read it?”

But if the Houston tiger beetle is under pressure from the city, it’s also ideally placed for Houstonians to protect it. “They don’t need very large areas to survive,” Egan said. So protecting just a few acres here or there could save the species. The Coastal Prairie Conservancy, which manages 18,000 acres of grasslands on the city’s western side, is one example: the preserve has been there for decades, Egan said, but scientists had no idea that the Houston tiger beetle was there. “But by protecting habitat in general, they were protecting both known and unknown species.” We’ll stay tuned for their next discovery.