Anyway, the wonderful thing about paleontology is that the extinct things one encounters through it are not always directly analogous to modern life forms. Dinosaurs, trilobites and ammonites–the Holy Trinity of paleontology–are all certainly not alien, but they aren't just humdrum prehistoric blueprints of their current ecological counterparts, being rather something distinctive and apart.
Fossilized insects, unfortunately, do not often diverge dramatically from modern ones: it seems that once a body-plan evolves among them it is never lost, and if its exponents die out utterly it will likely be recapitulated later on by an unrelated lineage. The notorious griffinflies (order Meganisoptera) that patrolled Earth's skies for 67 million years, including the 28-in.wingspan Meganeuropsis, were essentially hawk-sized dragonflies (a taxonomic oversimplification but an ecological truth); the various members of the superorder Dictyoptera (cockroaches, mantids and termites), both living and dead, are more or less Variations on the Theme of "I Am a Roach"–e.g., We Are Roaches With Sclerotized Forewings (Umenocoleidae), We Are Carnivorous Mantis-Like Roaches (Raphidiomimidae), I Am a Roach With Earwig-esque Cerci With Which I Probably Clasped My Mate (Fuziidae), and I Am a Roach With Leaping Hind Legs and a Name Like That of a Romulan (Skok).
Thankfully, there are exceptions. The Kalligrammatidae were fluttering, colorful pollinators often termed "the butterflies of the Mesozoic"...but they were close kin of antlions (which they hardly resembled), and are only distant cousins of their extant namesakes. (See "Butterflies Before Butterflies, Flowers Before Flowers".) And, of course, there were the Chresmodidae, which are what I am posting about, although it may be hard to tell that from what I have written so far.
Chresmodids were spindly insects with slender, elongated legs. Females were winged; males, wingless. Their wing morphology (and venation), cerci, and ovipositor unanimously point to an affinity with the Polyneoptera, a varied assemblage of such organisms as grasshoppers, earwigs, and praying mantises (although chresmodids were classified elsewhere as recently as 1980). The fact that chresmodid nymphs are known (indicating that, like polyneopterans, they exhibited incomplete metamorphosis) seals the matter (Delclòs et al., 2008). But beyond that their relationships are debatable–this being but one of their interesting aspects.
|Crummy picture of a crummy fossil of Chresmoda obscura|
|In flagrante delicto Quebecoi Aquarius remigis (Gerridae); caught in the act by Philippe Moniotte|
No, it appears that Chresmoda sp. owe their gigantism to a unique aspect of their tarsi: namely, the fact that said tarsi were unreservedly flagellate, the 2 foremost tarsomeres (the segments which comprise an insect's foot) being subdivided into an excess of 40 tiny articles in what was apparently a means of spreading weight (Martínez-Delclòs, 1991). Why does this warrant italicization? Well, the foundational morphology from which all insects descend has no more than 5 podites: numerous lineages among the Insecta have less than that, but never more, with the strange exception of Chresmoda.
|A Carcharodontosaurus saharicus skull compared to that of a Homo sapiens by Louie Psihoyos|
|The gates of Hades swing wide and from the abyss comes Damon diadema!|
|Sea spider (Phoxichilidiidae: Anoplodactylus evansi) photographed by Bill Rudman near New South Wales|
|Water measurer (Hydrometra martini, Hydrometridae) photographed by Tom Murray|
|Timema sp. (Timematidae) pornography created by Scott Peden|
Additionally, the identity of the prehistoric taxa to which the Chresmodidae are obviously related (yes! There are some!) has been debated over the years. These mostly Mesozoic fossils–of which the Cretaceous-Paleogene Susumaniidae (Gorochov, 1988), the Jurassic Necrophasma (Martynov, 1928), and the Triassic Aeroplanidae (Tillyard, 1918) are some examples–have been often classified as Phasmatodea (Gorochov, 1994), but for the most part they consist only of wings, meaning that their identity as stick insects is based entirely upon venation. Well and good, except that their putative living kin's wings are reduced and heavily sclerotized, if not absent outright, making modern stick insect wing venation difficult and/or impossible to study (Wedmann et al., 2007). Furthermore, since the body is usually lacking in these fossils, in them one cannot confirm the presence of a vomer (a portion of male stick insects' naughty bits): a telltale apomorphy of modern phasmatodeans. (Significantly, chresmodid males lacked a vomer.) Hence, these purported basal stick insects' identification has been doubted (Tilgner, 2001). However, the twin discoveries of Gallophasma–a clichéd "missing link" between the alleged pre-Neogene Phasmatodea and their present-day ilk (Nel et al., 2010)–and a susumaniid with a vomer (Nel & Defosse, 2011) would seem to confirm that chresmodids are, indeed, stick insects (although controversy remains; Bradler and Buckley, 2011).
If so, then I must say that they are weird stick insects.
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