Image: COURTESY OF SCIENCE
For the first time in 87 years, scientists have discovered an entirely new order of insects. Two of the three known wingless, paper clip-size creatures were collected in 1909 and 1950 and had been gathering dust in museum drawers ever since. The third lies entombed in 45 million-year-old Baltic amber. A report detailing the find was released online today by the journal Science.
Oliver Zampro, a graduate student at the Max-Planck Institute for Limnology in Ploen, Germany, came across the unusual specimens in a series of happy accidents. Morphological analyses of the bugs conducted by Zampro and his colleagues confirmed that they did not fit in any of the 30 known insect orders, though they share features in common with stick insects and a little-known group called ice crawlers. Unlike stick insects, however, the newly identified beasts were apparently predators: studies of their stomach contents revealed bits of other bugs.
So far, the members of the 31st insect order, dubbed Mantophasmatodea, fall into two genera and three species, making this the smallest insect order on record. But exactly how the new group relates to the other orders remains to be determined--a task that may become easier as additional members are identified. Incredibly, an expedition to western Namibia's Brandberg Mountain recently turned up living representatives of the Mantophasmatodea. "This discovery is comparable to finding a living mastodon or saber-tooth tiger," remarks Piotr Naskrecki of Conservation International, the organization that funded the fieldwork. "It tells us that there are places on Earth that act as protective pockets, preserving tiny glimpses of what life was like millions of years ago."