The last of a new breed?

May 3, 2002

Biologists classify the living world hierarchically into phyla, classes, orders, families, genera and species. Within the phylum of vertebrates, for instance, mammals constitute a class; carnivores an order; dogs a family, foxes a genus and the red fox a species. While it is rare to find a new species of mammal, thousands of new insect species are discovered every year.

In many cases, the person who discovers one has to climb high mountains or fight through tropical rainforests. In others, though, they may only have to visit their nearest natural history museum, where many of the millions of specimens will most likely never have been examined because there are just too few experts. Nonetheless, nearly all can be assigned to one of the 32 recognised insect orders.

The specialist checks particular features of the body structure that characterise each order. Some features are obvious, such as the thickened hind legs of grasshoppers, but most are subtle anatomical details.

Just as an astronomer may dream of discovering a new planet in our solar system, it is the entomologist+s dream to find an insect that cannot be assigned to one of the recognised orders. The last time this happened was in 1914, when the first known ice-crawler was unlucky enough to meet an entomologist in the mountains of Western Canada and became famous as the first known representative of the order Notoptera . It has now happened again, although the story actually began a century ago.

In 1909, a female insect, wingless and about 2cm long, was collected by a missionary in Namibia, then German Southwest Africa. It was sent to the Humboldt University in Berlin, where it has been in storage ever since. A male of a similar species was caught in Tanzania in 1950 and arrived at the Zoological Museum of Lund in Sweden. In 1986, Roy Danielsson realised that this specimen was something special and forwarded it to the Natural History Museum in London for identification.

Only when Oliver Zompro, a German stick-insect specialist, was shown the Lund insect during a visit to the museum last summer did it become clear that it might represent an unknown order of insects. A little later, Zompro traced the Berlin specimen and sent both examples to the Zoological Museum in Copenhagen, where, at the time, I was employed as a specialist in insect anatomy and phylogenetics, along with Niels Peder Kristensen.

I started dissecting the strange insects. This involved carefully groping my way through a jungle of sclerites (the hard parts of the body wall), muscles, nerves, and other organs, using sharply pointed forceps and minute scissors. I soon realised that the two insects represented a sensational discovery and, dissecting them, I felt like I was exploring another planet. Eventually this research yielded enough scientific data for us to confirm that the insects represented a new order, which was named Mantophasmatodea .

It also became clear that the animals must have fed from other insects, as their guts were full of insect remains. The closest relatives of the Mantophasmatodea are possibly stick insects or ice-crawlers, but there is ambiguity about this. Prior to the two museum specimens being identified, similar insects had been seen as fossils in 45-million-year-old European amber. But only a few of the features that specialists need to examine to identify a new order can be seen in the fossils, and thus only the study of the two museum specimens could justify the naming of the new order Mantophasmatodea , to which the fossils can now also be assigned. These fossils show that in the early Tertiary period (some 45 million years ago), Mantophasmatodea also lived in Europe.

Only after the fossils and the museum specimens had been identified were Mantophasmatodea also found alive during an expedition to the Brandberg mountain in Namibia, initiated by Zompro and Eug ne Marais from the National Museum in Windhoek.

A breeding culture has since been established at the Max-Planck-Institute for Limnology in Plon, Germany. This has created much excitement among entomologists because experts from different disciplines can conduct detailed studies of the Mantophasmatodea . Thus, despite its recent discovery, the Mantophasmatodea is fast becoming a candidate for the most studied of insect orders.

Klaus-Dieter Klass is curator of Coleoptera (beetles) at the Museum Fur Tierkunde in Dresden, Germany.

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