Sam Heads, a research student at the University of Portsmouth, was sent specimens thought to be stick insects from two German museums but he knew instantly he was looking at an ancient relative of the modern grasshopper which lived 115 million years ago.
It is not the first time Sam has identified a new species of insect and he said: “I've lost count of the number of times I've identified new species. Every time I open a museum drawer I find something new.”
The flying grasshopper belonged to a family called Proscopiidae and its role was to act like a stick, hence a possible reason for confusion over what the insects were.
The newly-discovered insect was about five centimetres long. It is now extinct but it belonged to a family which survives and whose common names include jumping sticks, stick grasshoppers and horse-head grasshoppers.
Sam has named the new insect Eoproscopia martilli, after his university mentor Dr Dave Martill who teaches in the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences. One of his earlier discoveries, of a cicada, was named after another tutor Bob Loveridge.
Sam said: “Discovery is by far one of the most satisfying aspects of doing science. It is very exciting. I realised immediately that they were the first-ever fossils of this fascinating family of grasshoppers and basically just sat staring at them down the microscope for the rest of the day.
“The findings extend the geological range of the Proscopiidae back almost 120 million years into the time of the dinosaurs and allow us to glimpse into the distant and otherwise unknown evolutionary past of the family.
“I have spent the last five years researching fossil insects and identifying specimens becomes second nature.”
Eoproscopia martilli was primitive with a short head and well developed wings. Their descendants have elongated heads and have either lost their wings or seen them evolve into mere stumps or tiny winglets.
Sam said: “Proscopiids are stick mimics and it’s likely that becoming a better stick requires significant reduction of the wings. Once the wings become too small for flight, they could easily be lost through natural selection.”
To avoid predators the young grasshoppers sway back and forth or walk in a spasmodic fashion to try and mimic a stick blowing in the wind.
This family of grasshopper is common in Central and South America and unlike its closest British relative which can be heard singing through the summer, they have no ears and do not sing.
Sam said this latest find is significant because it provides a window into the evolutionary history of the proscopiid grasshoppers.
“These insects are strange and their relationships with other grasshopper groups are obscure. Eoproscopia martilli not only presents us with information about ancient proscopiids, but also provides some insight into the possible evolutionary relationships of these early grasshoppers.
“As is always the case with scientific discoveries this find has raised more questions than it has answered. In the early Cretaceous period when South America was attached to Africa this grasshopper could easily have moved between what are now two continents yet no proscopiids live in Africa today and we don’t know why.”
Kate Daniell | alfa
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