Maaminga rangi
Image: ADELAIDE UNIVERSITY MEDIA

An international team of researchers has discovered a new family of wasps living on the islands of New Zealand (see image). The tiny insects were initially collected in the 1970s, but because they resemble other wasps, no one thought they represented a different group until now. "The new family has extremely unusual features," team member Andy Austin of Adelaide University in Australia explains. "It appears to be a composite of two unrelated wasp groups, with the front end typical of one group and the back end of another." This trait earned the wasps their new family name: Maamingidae, after the Maori word for trickster. The scientists reported their findings in the June issue of Invertebrate Taxonomy.

It is a rare occasion these days when someone discovers an entirely new family of organisms. "The vast majority of species belong to families that had been described by the start of the 20th century," Austin says. "There have only been five or six new families described from Australasia in the past 30 years, and that is high compared with the rest of the world." Maaminga rangi is not unlike those other recently found creatures. "Families that have avoided discovery have done so usually because they are extremely rare, only found in very isolated places, or very small," Austin explains. The new wasps, at 1.5 millimeters long, would fit on the tip of a dull pencil.

Though officially christened into the animal kingdom, M. rangi remains, in many ways, a mystery. Even their classification as a parasite is only an assumption at this point. "What they parasitize, we don't yet know this either," Austin confesses. "But given that the two closest families parasitize the larval stages of flies in leaf litter, this is what we would predict as the biology of the new family."