Discovering a unique insect

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Even the staid Scientific American magazine said an insect found in June 2001 left entomologists around the world stunned. It was unique; it didn’t fit any of the 30 insect orders. Eugene Zompro, working on his doctorate in Germany, saw the insect in some 45-million-year-old amber dug up in the Baltic. It didn’t resemble anything he’d ever seen before. He went to a London museum to check it out. The curator showed him a similar dried-up bug that didn’t seem to fit anywhere on the insect tree of life. It was the carcass of an adult male found in Tanzania in 1950. Zompro took a photo of it back to Germany.

There, someone sent Zompro amber enclosing a complete adult male insect. Under the microscope, it looked a lot like the two others. Zompro began to think he was making an important discovery. His adviser suggested he hunt for more specimens in other European museums. After a frustrating search, he finally found what he wanted near home. A Berlin museum had a little bottle of alcohol holding an adult female insect looking much like his ancient, amber-frozen male.

With his adviser, Zompro carefully studied the two complete specimens. What the Dickens were they? They looked like grasshoppers, but they had no wings; front legs covered with prickles like those on a praying mantis, but heads and hind legs quite different; and straight bodies like walking sticks, even though they were clearly carnivores.

The entomologists found other unusual structures in the bodies of these weirdos, and determined that they didn’t fit any existing order. So they dubbed them Mantophasmatodea: Mantodea for the mantid resemblance and Phasmatodea for the walking stick. Among themselves, the scientists called the insects gladiators. They looked warlike, and at the nymph stage of life they were covered with armor.

Earlier this year, 10 baffled entomologists went to the desert in Namibia, where they’d heard such bugs might still exist. They found them despite the bugs’ good camouflage; at night, the gladiators came out to eat insects, some as large as themselves. They even ate younger gladiators that had been injured.

Since all this happened, entomologists in many countries are discovering more gladiators, some in museums and many in the wild, especially in South Africa. Researchers are working on details of the insects’ lives – behavior, life cycle, reproduction, even DNA. So far, no one knows what branch on the tree of evolving insects is held by gladiators.

This is Ruth Page, describing an ancient insect newly discovered, different from any other insects known to science.

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