How I met the "gladiator"
Most people wouldn't get excited by an inch-long insect crawling on a rock. But the animal I saw near my campsite on Namibia's forbidding Brandberg mountain wasn't just any insect, and this wasn't just any camping trip. I was part of a two-week expedition to find living specimens of the "gladiator," a small but aggressive animal that team leader Oliver Zompro of the Max Planck Institute in Plön, Germany, had recently realized didn't fit into any known order of insects. The new order, called Mantophas-matodea, is the first new insect order discovered since 1915.
A new order may not sound like a big deal. But imagine discovering elephants or turtles for the first time. Both represent orders in the classification of life. Zompro had first seen gladiators embedded in 40-to-50-million-year-old Baltic amber, but he hadn't realized they might still be around until he found a few recently collected African specimens in several European museums. Our Namibian expedition was quickly organized to locate these living fossils. To our astonishment, gladiators were easy to find—once we knew where to look (humid rock crevices). So how did they elude scientists for so long? It might be their appearance—they look like immature mantises or walking sticks. In fact, a screening of insect collections in southern African museums has already turned up more new species of the new order. Almost everything about their habits remains a mystery. We've learned that males attract mates by drumming on plant stems with their abdomens, and females lay eggs encased in protective foam deep in the soil.
The next step: Figuring out where else they live and defining their relationship with other insects (their anatomy and DNA suggest affinities with ice-crawlers, insects that forage at high elevations, often in ice and snow). No matter where gladiators end up on the tree of life, their discovery reminds me how little scientists know about the natural world.