Whazzits get their own insect order

Insect specimens that have puzzled museum curators for decades turn out to represent a lineage so odd that scientists have named a new order just for them, the first one created in 87 years.

NEW CARNIVORE. Female gladiator collected in Namibia, Mantophasma zephyra, gets a name after almost a century in a museum collection. Science

The order, Mantophasmatodea, has at least three species, say Klaus-Dieter Klass of the University of Copenhagen and three colleagues in an upcoming article in Science. They’ve nicknamed these critters gladiators because the spiky heads suggest Hollywood helmets.

The creatures look part stick insect, part mantis, with a touch of grasshopper. However, they don’t jump. Unlike the plant-eating stick insects, the gladiators prey on other insects. They have a distinctive triangular projection on one foot segment and unusual lobes on another.

Coauthor Oliver Zompro of Max Planck Institute for Limnology in Plön, Germany, encountered a dried, wingless male about an inch long at the Natural History Museum in London last summer. It came from Tanzania, and a Swedish museum had sent it to London 16 years earlier in hopes that someone would figure out what the creature was.

Soon after examining that specimen, Zompro received a 45-million-year-old piece of Baltic amber with a skinny insect preserved in it. He noticed a resemblance. A month later, he found yet another possible relative, a female collected in Namibia more than 90 years ago and thrown in with the unidentified stick insects in the Berlin Museum for Natural History.

The Science paper classifies these specimens in two genera and lists the physical characteristics that distinguish gladiators from the 30 previously recognized extant insect orders–broad groups such as dragonflies or beetles.

Since the four scientists wrote their report, Zompro joined an international scientific expedition to northwestern Namibia and brought home live members of the new order, probably including at least one new species. He says that the gladiators’ behavior confirms their uniqueness.

Susan Milius is the life sciences writer, covering organismal biology and evolution, and has a special passion for plants, fungi and invertebrates. She studied biology and English literature.