April 26, 2011 | 13
Like many biologists, the German biologist Oliver Zompro spends thousands of hours looking at specimens of dead animals. He found his first new species when he was twenty. By the age of thirty he had named dozens of wild new forms. While other people around him did crossword puzzles and drank lattes, he explored the world, one animal at a time.
Then, one day, things changed. He was looking through specimens when he found something more interesting than anything he had ever seen before. It was a fossil that looked like a cross between two different kinds of animals. It had the wrong mix of parts. It was–he would come to convince himself–a single individual of an entirely new order of beasts.
An order is one of the big categories of life, a big branch on evolution’s tree. Animal species are named every day, but finding another new order would be equivalent to discovering bats having not previously known they existed. Bats constitute their own order, as do primates, beetles, flies and rodents.
It is easy to imagine that we have found all of them, living and dead. Yet the grass had parted for Zompro and revealed his treasure. He was not the first person to see it, but he was the first to recognize its significance and, he hoped, to give it a name.
But before Zompro went public with his find, he craved more specimens. He had found one specimen that other scientists had overlooked. It was at least theoretically possible that he might find others. And so he began to search, with zeal. First, he visited the Natural History Museum in London. It is filled with dead animals and so a good place to begin.
In the British Museum he found many false leads. Then, remarkably, he found some real ones. There, in the collection, was a male very similar to the one he had found in his native Germany, but with one key difference. The label attached to it indicated that it had been collected in Tanzania in 1955, alive. This new life form might still be around, a living fossil!
Zompro had struck gold. Amazingly, with a little more digging, he then did it again. He found another specimen in the Museum fur Naturkunde, Humboldt University in Berlin, this one a female from a 1909 collection in Namibia.
Zompro thought he had stumbled upon an entire evolutionary line that had survived the dinosaurs, survived the evolution of mammals and now just maybe had survived several hundred thousand years of human troublemaking.
Quickly, Zompro, his advisor and other colleagues wrote a paper on the new find in which they named the new order "Mantophasmatodea." Later the group would be given the common name, "heel walkers," which makes one think of other beasts of lore–yetis, sasquatch, and the like. Each of the individuals Zompro had discovered was named as a separate species. History would soon decide if the group was distinct enough to constitute its own order. In the meantime, Zompro and colleagues needed more specimens; they wanted to find these animals alive.
Zompro and colleagues decided go to Africa to look for more. Before they did, they needed to know where to look. Africa is big. This animal was, relatively speaking, small. The choice of sites was key, but little information existed on which to base the decision.
One of the specimens Zompro had found was from a relatively easy to reach site in Tanzania, but there was also a specimen from a far more isolated region of Namibia. In fact, the most recent specimens that turned up, one from 1991 and another from 2001, both came from the same place in Namibia, the Brandberg Massif. To the Massif they would go. In such faraway places, they imagined, living fossils like the one for which they were looking might survive.
To see Brandberg Massif in an aerial photo is unsettling. It is a circular plug of granite that rises straight out of the flat desert. Miles of desert extend from the Massif in every direction. There are no surrounding hills, no trees and no bumps of stubble. The Massif, formed by the extrusion of lava, looks as though it were dropped on to the landscape. It is formidable, unique, and isolated, just the kind of place where one might find a yeti, or the ghost of an ancient animal.
The good news about the Brandberg Massif is that it is remote enough to preserve ancient and fragile life forms, away from humans. The bad news is that it is remote enough to be really difficult to get to.
Zompro and colleagues decided that they would need to be flown in by helicopter to the massif. And so, in January 2002, after much planning and many signs that the expedition would never come to fruition, seven scientists were dropped off with great quantities of gear of cameras, collection devices and food. They even brought porters. The venture had gone from a cheap collecting trip to an expensive "expedition," funded by Conservation International.
The idea was to hike from the landing site to potential habitat, then hike out. To see photos from the trip, one can sense the excitement of the scientists. Perhaps there should have also been fear. They had spent a great deal of money. To return with no specimens would be tremendously disappointing.
Once the helicopter had left, and maybe even a little bit before, the team began to search . They poked, prodded, chased, ran, and generally did everything they could to look everywhere a small, rare animal might hide. They looked in holes. But the truth was that while there were miles of desert there were not really that many places to look. After a whole day nothing had been found, not a single clue. Then things changed.
Someone turned a leaf and under it was, lo and behold, a single individual (see photo). It hung there as though it had been waiting for centuries. Soon there were others. By the end of a week, thirty Mantophasmatodes had been collected, observed and fawned over. No one mentioned the heat. No one complained about anything. A few of these serious scientists began, uncontrollably, to smile.
The mission was not half over and already it was a success. In the meantime, the scientists now had to walk off the Massif. Walking off had seemed at first a good idea. But it soon became clear that not everyone could carry all of his or her gear. People began to complain about the heat. They began to complain about the weight of their gear. Some contemplated turning back. One — Eugene Marais from the National Museum of Namibia — broke his ankle. Then, while slowly hopping down the hill on one leg, he grabbed a small tree for support and was stung by a scorpion resting on the tree. The biologists cursed one another. But no one cursed the Mantaphasmatodes, the tiny, living animals that they held aloft like kings.
Not long after the expedition, Zompro’s first article about the New Order was published in the journal Science. Quickly, the story appeared in magazines and newspapers around the world. Headlines proclaimed "Fossil Insect Found Alive." Zompro had not yet finished his PhD, but already major newspapers in a dozen countries had interviewed him.
What was more, time and analyzes would prove the Mantaphasmatodes to be just as unique as Zompro had initially believed, a new world order, or at the very least a suborder. And so he would have been justified had he imagined that other scientists would say things, admiringly, like "I can’t believe you discovered this strange new animal!" Some did. But he also heard something different.
Mike Picker, a professor at the University of Cape Town, saw photos of the Mantophasmatodes in a magazine. To him they did not look new and strange, they looked old and familiar. Picker recognized the mantaphasmatdoes as animals he had known of for years. He had known them from habitats all around Cape Town. Picker had actually seen the Mantophasmatodes but had not realized they were something beyond another unnamed species.
The Mantophasmatodes look, inescepably, larval (they lack wings, for example, and have no ocelli) and so Picker like others mistook them for immature versions of some known creature, perhaps some weird kind of cricket. When more than three quarters of all species of animals are not yet named, it is hard to know which ones to get excited about finding. Picker went through his collections looking for specimens of Mantophasmatodes. Within weeks, he had found twenty-nine individual Mantophasmatodes. Thirteen living species of Mantophasmatodea have now been named and placed in 10 genera and three different families.
In other words, Zompro has done something more amazing than finding a rare new order of animals. He has discovered a common order of animals that everyone else had missed, a discovery in plain view.
Mantaphasmatodes are not a far away species confined to some remote hunk of rock. They are a whole suite of species, some of which live places as mundane as backyards. They are also a kind of a living extended metaphor for what lurks around us unnoticed all the time.
Most days we forget about the grandness of the living world. In our offices and busy lives we gloss over what remains to be discovered. Yet, there are still more unnamed species than named species on Earth, some of them very near to where we live. Discoveries are possible everywhere. If you had any doubt about this statement, you need not go any further than the most recent episode in the story of the Mantaphasmatodes, the one involving Piotr Naskrecki and a truck stop.
Piotr Naskrecki was one of the scientists on the first expedition to the Brandberg Massif. He lugged camera gear. He hiked down the hill. He came home victorious with the rest of the crew. And then he also went back to South Africa for other collecting trips.
It was on one of these recent trips, it so happens to South Africa, that he stopped at a "filthy truck stop on the major highway, N1," heading north out of Capetown. There, as he is wont to do everywhere, he looked around, this time with his friend Corey. While other people searched for the bathroom, Naskrecki looked to see if he could find any interesting insects. Lo and behold, he did.
He searched in much the way that he had searched for Mantaphasmatodes up on the Massif. At first he found nothing and then he found a new species of Katydid and then another, and then six more and then, amazingly, another new species of Mantophasmatode. The Mantophasmatode he discovered, a pregnant female pictured here, is a still unnamed species of the genus Sclerophasma:
She is lovely and interesting, but also evidence that the Mantaphasmatodes, the first new insect order named since the early nineteen hundreds, an order whose discovery in the field required a trip to the remote Brandberg Massif, could have been discovered at a truck stop!
What was required to discover the Mantaphasmatodes, whether the species on top of the Massif or the species at the truck stop, was the realization that no one else knew what they were. Once that realization was made, discovering them was both easier and more interesting. Until then, the Mantaphasmatodes, like much of life, seemed (wrongly) likely to be known by some expert in a university somewhere. Yet they were not known, just as most of life is not known.
It was only recently that it was discovered that mice sing to each other. It was not so very long ago that it was discovered that clouds are filled with bacteria. What else remains to be known? Nearly everything.
So pay attention when you are walking through forests and backyards and, yes, even truck stops. Take notes. Take pictures and assume that you are the very first one to see everything that you see. The life around us is as foreign as the dark side of the moon, we just forget. You may find a new form of life and you will certainly find new observations of behaviors.
But be forewarned too. As Naskrecki can confirm, if you go around truck stops with a headlamp, vials and ethanol at night you MIGHT discover a new life form, but you WILL have some explaining to do and so practice saying, in whatever language is appropriate, "Officer, the vials are for insects. I am trying to make a discovery." No one said it was easy being an explorer.
Images: Piotr Naskrecki
About the Author: Rob Dunn is a science writer and biogeographer in the Department of Biology at North Carolina State University. His first book, Every Living Thing, told the stories of the sometimes obsessive, occasionally mad, and always determined, biologists who have sought to discover the limits of the living world. His new book, The Wild Life of Our Bodies, explores how changes in our interactions with other species, be they forehead mites or tigers, have affected our health and well being. Rob lives in Raleigh, North Carolina with his wife, two children, and more than two forehead mites.
The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.