New insect discovered during entomology class

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

There's a new bug in town, and it's all Fort Hays State University student Ryan Shofner's fault.

But that's a good thing, considering the jumping bristletail that Shofner found -- and continues to find -- is a new insect species.

Less than a half-inch in length, it is a distant cousin to the better known and much-maligned silverfish.

FHSU officials called a press conference Thursday to announce the discovery by Shofner, who found the critter while taking an undergraduate entomology class in the fall of 2007.

"This is a very primitive insect," said FHSU President Edward H. Hammond. "But it is the star of the show."

Thanks to Shofner, that is. He is a fifth-year FHSU student from Littleton, Colo.

Other bristletails have been known for many years, but not in Kansas. And never this species.

On an outing in October 2007, Shofner set out a trap on FHSU land southwest of Hays -- land that hasn't been grazed since 1902, and only burned every other year since the 1980s to mimic the natural environment.

This bristletail went down into the insect trap, which was retrieved by Shofner.

He and his teacher, Richard Packauskas, associate professor of biology, were troubled by several aspects of the insect and launched a full review.

"We tried to ID it a bit, and it didn't quite come out as we expected," Shofner said.

Instead, the insect in front of them was typically found miles away, down in Texas and Mexico. And in wetter areas, unlike the arid environment surrounding Hays.

Typically, the known species of jumping bristletail were thought to eat algae, perhaps bacteria, such as yeast.

There isn't any algae where Shofner found the new species.

Research on the insects was lacking, mostly coming from entomologists overseas. But it was the university's electron microscope that provide the details to prove it was a new species -- hypomachilodes forthaysi.

It took perhaps six months to convince themselves that they had a new species, Shofner said.

"I actually suspected it early on," he said, adding that Packauskas served as a voice of moderation to be sure before moving forward with it.

Besides, in the scientific world, Packauskas said, you have to first publish the description "before you can start talking about it."

That description was published in the Journal of the Kansas Entomological Society last year.

At the announcement Shofner was humble, telling about how exciting it is to be an undergraduate and describing a new species.

"Not every undergraduate gets to do that," he said. "It's taken a lot of work in the two years to get that species described."

Now that it has been described, Packauskas said the holotype specimen -- the first of its kind to be discovered -- will be sent to the Smithsonian Institutions.

Fort Hays, of course, will be keeping plenty of specimens as well.

"I think we've got the largest collection of bristletails in the United States right now," he said.

"They're actually easy to catch," Shofner said, "once you know where to look for them."

And they're not just limited to the small section of land where they were first found.

While Shofner said he's ready to graduate, he also plans to attend graduate school, hopefully in Hays.

But will he pursue a graduate degree in entomology.

"Perhaps," he said. "I have a lot of interests."