F. Whitcombi is dependent on a single species of New Jersey grass, the pine barren smokegrass, for its food. But the smokegrass is on the state's threatened species list, and researchers aren't yet certain whether the insect lives in the other regions of the eastern U.S. - a small region of Tennessee and parts of North Carolina - where the smokegrass species also grows.
Insects in the Flexamia genus tend to be found on a single host plant species, one that is usually widespread, Andrew Hicks of the Museum of Natural History at the University of Colorado writes in his study, published last week in Zookeys. Leafhoppers are dependent on that species over the course of their lives - if something happens to the plant, they lose their home and their food source.
Most leafhoppers tend to take up in grassy regions that aren't densely populated by humans, Hicks writes, such as in the prairie or even in some parts of the American desert. So it's kind of unusual to find a leafhopper living in a crowded state like New Jersey, right on the corridor between New York City and Washington, D.C.
If the leafhopper is unique to the Pine Barrens, there's a particular reason for concern, even though its food source is still relatively abundant there. "The Pine Barrens are already suffering the effects of a warming climate, as evidenced by the recent irruption there of the Southern Pine Beetle," Hicks writes in the study.
"Should the effects of climate change or other anthropomorphic pressures cause the local extinction of the host (as has apparently already occurred elsewhere in its range), there will be little opportunity for the survival of this Flexamia," Hicks continues, "But that might be said of most species described today."
Although Hicks isn't certain about the future of the new leafhopper species, he was concerned enough about its circumstances to conclude his description of the F. whitcombi with the following gloomy note:
"The description of any new species may serve as a catalyst for additional research, and this will be best accomplished while the species still can be found in nature––something that can no longer taken for granted. To delay the publication of a species description until the time of a genus revision is to deny the pace of change in the natural world in the 21st century and may consign said new species to a future status of 'known from a single collection', or, 'presumed extinct, life history unknown.'"