Animals

New Beetle Species Named for Chewbacca

The towering and shaggy Wookiee character Chewbacca from the 'Star Wars' movies has a new namesake: a tiny weevil.

The towering and shaggy Wookiee character Chewbacca from the "Star Wars" movies has a new namesake - a tiny weevil recently discovered in New Guinea.

Though the insect is significantly smaller and much less hairy than everyone's favorite "walking carpet," dense scales on the weevil's legs and head reminded the scientists of Chewbacca's fur, prompting their name choice.

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Trigonopterus chewbacca is one of four new weevil species identified on the island of New Britain in the Bismarck Archipelago in New Guinea. Discovered alongside it were the somewhat less whimsically named weevilsT. obsidianus, T. puncticollis and T. silaliensis. [7 Animals with 'Star Wars'-Inspired Names]

T. chewbacca is a flightless weevil, a type of beetle typically found in leaf litter in forests. The male's body is black with hair-like structures on its antennae and legs, and measures 0.13 inches (3.34 millimeters) in length.

Scientists spent 10 days combing through leaf litter in unrelenting downpours to find the miniscule beetles, eventually collecting 18 specimens that represented the four new species.

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Previously, only one known species in the Trigonopterus weevil group had been found in this region, although prior studies described Trigonopterus weevils in New Caledonia, Samoa and Fiji. While T. chewbacca was the first species in this group that was named for a "Star Wars" character, it's not the only one with a celebrity-inspired moniker. Trigonopterus attenboroughi - described in a study published in ZooKeys in 2014 - was named for famed British naturalist Sir David Attenborough.

This isn't the first time that scientists who were also "Star Wars" fans incorporated their fondness for the Millennium Falcon co-pilot into a species name. A fuzzy Mexican moth was described as Wockia chewbacca in the journal Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington in 2009, and a wasp described as Polemistus chewbacca appeared in the journalZoological Record in 1983.

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Other "Star Wars" characters have also inspired scientists to tap those characters' names for new species discoveries, giving us an acorn worm named after Yoda (Yoda purpurata), a trilobite named for Han Solo (Han solo) and a slime mold beetle named for Darth Vader (Agathidium vaderi).

Even a fairly minor (but still well-known) character named Greedo, the ill-fated bounty hunter killed by Han Solo in "A New Hope," is commemorated with a species name - Peckoltia greedoi, a flat-headed catfish that bears a striking resemblance to the peculiar-looking alien.

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Study lead author Matthew Van Dam, a postdoctoral researcher with the Zoological State Museum in Bavaria Germany, told Live Science in an email that studying weevils - one of the planet's most diverse groups of insects - can help scientists better understand the environments that weevils occupy, and can inform future conservation efforts in threatened areas.

This could be especially critical in parts of the world where the extent of animal diversity is still unknown. Scientists reported in the new study that there could be many more animal species on the island of New Britain that haven't yet been discovered, but that time would be of the essence to track them down and identify them, as palm oil plantation expansion has already claimed significant portions of land that were once covered by forest habitats.

The findings were published online April 21 in the journal ZooKeys.

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Original article on Live Science.

The newly described "Chewbacca" beetle is fuzzy-legged and adorable.

Insects and other creepy crawlies may be tiny, but their lineages are mighty, finds a new study that determined the common ancestor of mites and insects existed about 570 million years ago. The study, published in the latest issue of the journal Science, presents an evolutionary timeline that settles many longstanding uncertainties about insects and related species. It found that true insects first emerged about 479 million years ago, long before dinosaurs first walked the Earth. Co-author Karl Kjer, a Rutgers entomologist, explained that mites are arthropods, a group that's distantly related to insects. Spiders and crustaceans are also arthropods.

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Spiders such as the huntsman spider can, like mites, trace their lineages back to about 570 million years ago, according to the new study. The researchers believe that the common ancestor of mites, spiders and insects was a water-dweller.

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Millipedes, such as the one shown here, as well as centipedes are known as myriapods. The most recent common ancestor of myriapods and crustaceans lived about 550 million years ago. Again, this "mother of many bugs" would have been a marine dweller. Kjer explained, "You can't really expect anything to live on land without plants, and plants and insects colonized land at about the same time, around 480 million years ago. So any date before that is a sea creature." Moving forward in time, the most common ancestor of millipedes and centipedes existed a little over 400 million years ago. The leggy body plan has proven to be extremely successful.

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"This is an early insect that evolved before insects had wings," Kjer said. Its ancestry goes back about 420 million years. The common ancestor of silverfish living today first emerged about 250 million years ago. Dinosaurs and the earliest mammals likely would have then seen silverfish very similar to the ones that are alive now.

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Dragonflies and damselflies have family histories that go back about 406 million years. Kjer said that such insects looked differently then, however. "For example," he said, "they had visible antennae." Their distant ancestors were among the first animals on earth to fly.

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"Parasitic lice are interesting, because they probably needed either feathers or fur," Kjer said. As a result, they are the relative newbies to this list. Nonetheless, the researchers believe it is possible that ancestors of today's lice were around 120 million years ago, possibly living off of dinosaurs and other creatures then.

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Crickets, katydids and grasshoppers had a common ancestor that lived just over 200 million years ago, and a stem lineage that goes back even further to 248 million years ago. A trivia question might be: Which came first, these insects or grass? The insects predate the grass that they now often thrive in.

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Dinosaur Era fossils sometimes include what researchers call "roachoids," or wing impressions that were made by ancestors to today's roaches, mantids (like the praying mantis) and termites. "Some cockroaches are actually more closely related to termites than they are to other cockroaches," Kjer said, explaining that this makes tracing back their lineages somewhat confusing. He and his colleagues determined that the stem lineage goes back about 230 million years, while the earliest actual cockroach first emerged around 170 million years ago.

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Termites and cockroaches have a tightly interwoven family history. Termites similar to the ones we know today were around 138 million years ago. Now we often think of termites as pests, but they are good eats for many different animals, which back in the day would have included our primate ancestors.

Flies like houseflies that often buzz around homes belong to the order Diptera, which has a family tree that goes back 243 million years ago. The most recent common ancestor for modern flies lived about 158 million years ago, according to the study. There is little doubt that the earliest humans, and their primate predecessors, had to contend with pesky flies and all of the other insects mentioned on this list. All of these organisms are extremely hardy. The researchers determined that, in the history of our planet, there has only been one mass extinction event that had much impact on insects. It occurred 252 million years ago (the Permian mass extinction), and even it set the stage for the emergence of flies, cockroaches, termites and numerous other creepy crawlies.

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