New Insect Order Found in Southern Africa

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Zompro said he got lucky. "So many zoologists all over the world have combed the Earth for new specimens in so many locations that the chance of finding a new order is close to zero," he said.

Zompro, a specialist in stick insects, was studying a group of fossils sent to him by various collectors when he began to suspect he was seeing a new type of insect.

The oldest known specimen of the newly identified insect was encased in a 40-million-year-old chunk of golden amber.

Over a period of six months, Zompro received nearly two dozen specimens that led him to conclude he had discovered a new order, but one that he thought was now extinct. One amber nugget contained a perfectly preserved adult specimen. Another fossil had captured the insect in the cannibalistic act of eating another.

"It's a big insect and difficult to overlook. That's what is so amazing" about the finding, Zompro said.

Sifting through entomology collections at the British Museum of Natural History in London, he found an adult male insect from Tanzania that looked remarkably like the specimens entombed in amber. A few weeks later, he came upon a female specimen of the insect at Berlin's Museum of Natural History.

When Zompro dissected the specimen from the Berlin Museum, he found the remains of insects in its gut, indicating that the stick-like insect was a carnivore. All other known stick-like insects are plant eaters.

"At this point, I was sure that I had found an absolutely new order of insects," said Zompro.

Wilderness Search

Both of the insects Zompro observed in London and Berlin appeared related to the 40-million-year-old fossilized insect encased in amber. But the museum specimens had been collected during expeditions in the last century, suggesting that the insect was not extinct.

Zompro photographed the three specimens and sent the pictures to museums in Africa and South America, requesting information about any insects that appeared to be similar.

The National Museum of Namibia responded with a specimen that had been found in the Brandberg Mountains. It appeared to be from the same insect group.

Eugene Marais, the museum's curator of entomology, met with Zompro in Berlin and examined the original amber fossil. Based on their analysis, Zompro made plans to travel to Namibia to search for the insect.

Earlier this month, he joined an expedition to the Brandberg Mountains, jointly sponsored by Conservation International, the Max Planck Institute, and the National Museum of Namibia. The team consisted of 16 entomologists from Germany, England, South Africa, Namibia, and the United States.

The scientists were dropped onto a mountain peak in the remote area and began a painstaking search on the stony, arid summit. After a night of shaking grass bushes, a scientist looking for insects called silverfish found the first of the live insects that came to be known as "the gladiator."

During the trip, Zompro collected a dozen of the insects, which he carried back to his lab in Germany to study mating, feeding, and other forms of behavior in the insects. Aggressive tendencies became one area of interest—a couple of the insects apparently were eaten during the the trip back.

Zompro plans to return to Namibia to study the distribution of the insect in Namibia.

Naskrecki of Conservation International said Zompro's discovery is important because 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."

The Namibian insects, he added, "are one of the last living witnesses of a time when America and Africa were still part of the same land mass. This order was thought to be extinct for 35 to 50 million years."

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