The new species Hydraena ateneo was found among leaf litter in a small creek of the Ateneo de Manila Campus. H. Freitag, Ateneo de Manila University

When you picture scientists discovering new insect species, you might imagine pith-helmeted explorers venturing deep into mysterious rainforests, or divers descending many fathoms below the surface of the ocean. But the newest beetle on the books wasn’t found atop a misty mountain or deep in some forgotten cave; it was hanging out in metropolitan Manila.

Students and faculty at the Ateneo de Manila University were sampling some of the waterways around campus last November, when they pulled up a brown water beetle that wasn’t on any current taxonomical list. In the middle of the Phillippine capital, they had found a new species, which Ateneo biology professor Hendrik Freitag has dubbed Hydraena ateneo in honor of the school. A paper describing the new beetle appears in the latest issue of the journal Zookeys.

H. ateneo is a tiny brown beetle, just over one millimeter long (about five-hundreths of an inch). It resembles another beetle, H. castanescens, but it's smaller and has distinctive legs and male reproductive organ, called an aedeagus (which is like a penis, but more complex). It lives in shallow, stagnant or slow-flowing fresh water beneath tree cover, feeding on the bacteria and fungi that collect around submerged leaves or gravel.

“A new species from a highly urbanized megacity is always a surprise,” Freitag wrote in an email. “However, new discoveries of Long-palped Water Beetles from the Philippines were likely as we only know very few of them, but the genus is expected to be very species-diverse.”

Since the initial discovery on the university campus, other researchers have found H. ateneo in neighboring provinces of the Phillippines. The species also turned up in the water beetle collection at the Natural History Museum of Vienna.

Water beetles aren’t the only new animals that have been discovered amid the concrete jungle. Earlier this year, scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society and other groups announced they’d discovered a new bird species, the Cambodian Tailorbird (Orthotomus chaktomuk) at a construction site in Phnom Penh. In 2012, wildlife biologists found a new species of leopard frog in marshy areas near Yankee Stadium in New York City. And in 2008, a Scottish researcher stumbled across a new kind of fungus on his walk home from work in downtown Aberdeen.

Freitag says his discovery underscores the need to preserve those small patches of habitat in densely populated cities. Such “islands” of nature can be a safe harbor for native species. To preserve urban biodiversity, Freitag writes in his paper, cities should minimize the discharge of untreated sewage into surface waters, stop dumping waste into waterways and forests, and plant more indigenous trees.

“The waters where we found [H. ateneo] are semi-natural and rather clean,” Freitag wrote in an email. “Water pollution would most likely kill the species.”

SOURCE: Freitag, Hendrik. “Hydraena (Hydraenopsis) ateneo, new species (Coleoptera, Hydraenidae) and other aquatic Polyphaga from a small habitat patch in a highly urbanized landscape of Metro Manila, Philippines.” ZooKeys 329: 9 – 21, 2013.