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China science

Alienoptera: scientists find bizarre hybrid of praying mantis and cockroach in 99-million-year-old amber from Myanmar

Predator and prey used to be closer than they are now, but were they at some point one and the same?

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 March, 2016, 9:01am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 June, 2017, 12:53pm

It isn’t every day that scientists stumble upon an ancient hybrid form of two species that now live as predator and prey, but a joint research team from China and Germany have discovered just that in a piece of amber from Myanmar.

Contained in fossil resin believed to date back 99 million years, the team found the remains of a creature bearing the hallmarks of a praying mantis - a natural-born hunter insect known for its elongated legs - and a cockroach, one of the world’s most famous scavengers.

The creature was so strange it prompted the researchers to create a new order for it in the Insecta class: Alienoptera.

The specimen featured a triangular head, powerful jaws and strong forelegs for hunting - all typical of the mantis - but its wings, claws and other body parts were deemed closer to common household roaches, the team reported in the international journal Gondwana Research.

The team was led by Professor Yang Xingke at the Institute of Zoology in Beijing, which operates under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and Professor Rolf Georg Beutel from Friedrich Schiller University Jena (FSU) in Thuringia, Germany.

The study is interesting because mantises and cockroaches stand as very successfully players in the history of evolution. Historically, they were more closely related than they are now.

While the former rank among the most efficient hunters in the insect world, roaches have adapted to various environments, leading to the popular myth that they are the only insects that would survive a nuclear explosion (they can withstand extreme radiation exposure, but a strong nuke would wipe them out).

Nonetheless, any fusion of these two could theoretically prove a formidable foe. Yet the apparent experiment by Mother Nature proved a dud - which is why you have never seen this particular hybrid flying-crawling around your garbage disposal unit.

“Alienopterus was an evolutionary dead end,” wrote the researchers.

After carefully examining the specimen’s physical structure using a computerised tomography (CT) scan, the researchers found that it would have been able to fly and crawl like a cockroach and hunt like a mantis - but that it most probably didn’t perform any of these tasks as well as the other two creatures.

Its forelegs, for example, were weaker than those of mantis.

Eventually, it was driven to extinction by natural selection, which favours the fittest, the researchers said.

The piece of amber is currently being stored in Beijing. In 2026 it will be sent to the Three Gorges Entomological Museum in Chongqing, in southwest China, where it will be publically exhibited, according to the authors of the paper.

This is not the first time the remains of an insect have been found bearing traces of both species.

Last year, another team from Slovakia and Germany found one that is believed to have hunted at night with formidable forelegs. It was classified as a prehistoric cockroach.