Scientists have found fossils of an early insect that seems to have the body parts from many different types of today's insects. It represents an evolutionary conundrum.

About a hundred to a hundred and forty-six million years ago, a strange little critter was burrowing around in the mud and wriggling around in the water. Coxoplectoptera, a recently discovered extinct species of insect, has left good-quality fossils that let scientists track its lifecycle. Its life seems to be spent looking like other animals. The insect developed in what scientists call a fluvial environment and other people call a river. When it's just a larva, it floats freely in the river, looking most like a freshwater shrimp. When it gets older, it looks a little more like the insect version of the sphinx; many animals rolled into one.

Coxoplectoptera was, scientists think, an extinct relative of the modern mayfly, but its body is made up of the parts of many different insects. It has the long spindly legs of a praying mantis, something that would be useful, since its discoverers believe that it hunted by sneak attack. It had the body and wing shape of a dragonfly, which might have helped it rise and strike from the hunters blinds that it dug into the mud along the edge of the river. The veins in the wings, however, make it most closely tied to a mayfly. The discovery of the insect in both its forms helps scientists get an idea of how wing structures evolved. They believe that the wings developed from the back plates of the insect as it matured.


The discovery of Coxoplectoptera also helps sci-fi writers imagine what insect horrors lie ahead. Yes, the features of Coxoplectoptera had to have sound evolutionary reasons for spreading out over the insect kingdom, but what mix-and-match obscenities might come out in the future? Ladybug bodies and wings with long, spindly crane fly legs? Grasshoppers with Hercules Beetle horns? Bees that make gravy. All I know is, if tarantulas (which, I know, are arachnids, but it's my nightmare) ever develop butterfly wings, I will fully support nuking the entire planet. It's the only way to be sure.

To read the full scientific paper (which is not yet online), here is the citation:
STANICZEK, A. & BECHLY, G. & GODUNKO, R.J. (2011): Coxoplectoptera, a new fossil order of Palaeoptera (Arthropoda: Insecta), with comments on the phylogeny of the stem group of mayflies (Ephemeroptera). - Insect Systematics & Evolution, 42: 101-138.


Or you can download the PDF here.

Images: Staatliches Museum für Naturkunde Stuttgart