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Scientists Discover New Insect - 2002-04-20

Insect scientists are all abuzz about the discovery of a new insect. Experts say the wingless creature, which resembles a cross between a praying mantis and an insect called a walking stick is in a class by itself.

It is not unusual for entomologists, or insect scientists, to discover a new species of butterfly or beetle. These creatures belong to established families, or orders, of insects.

The last insect order was discovered in 1915. And until now, entomologists thought they had catalogued all the insect orders there were.

But the world of entomology was turned on its head in March with the discovery of a new order made up of a single, tiny insect, which so far has only been found in the Brandenberg Mountain of Namibia.

Joachim Adis is an entomologist at the Max Planck Institute in Germany. "It looks like a grasshopper without wings. And this is why probably why it slipped through for a long time, and it is in U.S. measurements probably an inch long 2.5 centermeters grown up," he explained.

The search for the insect, nicknamed "Gladiator," began after Oliver Zompro, a doctoral student of Professor Adin's at Max Planck University, discovered the creature in a piece of 45-million year old Baltic amber.

At first, Mr. Zompro was not able to classify the fossilized insect, according to Piotr Naskrecki of Conservation International. "It just happens the same year he received samples of unidentified specimens from several museums including a museum in Namibia. And low and behold, there were actual specimens of this insect he had only known from this 45-million-year-old fossil," he said.

Mr. Naskrecki said an expedition to Namibia was immediately arranged, and samples of the tiny insects were found on Brandenberg Mountain. "So, it really was like finding something that was thought to be extinct. The amber fossils are thought to be at least 45-million-years-old, but what it means is the group is really much older than that. So, it is indeed like finding a living fossil a living mastodon, a living saber tooth tiger because the original discoverer thought that this group was extinct. And here we have this tiny little pocket, this tiny little population, that it survived. And it is still alive," he said.

Researchers plan to conduct genetics tests to find how closely related Gladiator is to the creature frozen in the Baltic amber. To do this, Max Planck University's Joachim's Adis said researchers will try to extract DNA fibers from the amber.

"So, this is something like 'Jurassic Park' It does not live any more, but we have animals alive. Then we can compare for the very first time the animals which are in my lab the genetic information we receive and we can hopefully compare it to material in the Baltic amber 45-million years ago at least," Mr. Adis said.

BERMAN: "Well, that is amazing."

ADIS: "Yup. That is what it is."

Discovery of the new insect was published in the journal Science.