Some scientists peer into ocean depths and explore jungles in search of new species. South African scientist Mike Picker made his discovery — a new species of cockroach — in the middle of a top tourist destination. Cape Town’s Table Mountain National Park is home to the world’s only jumping cockroach, which this week was named one of the top 10 species discoveries of the year by an international panel of experts.
Picker, a co-author of the Field Guide to Insects of South Africa and a zoology professor at the University of Cape Town, said his discovery shows how little is known about the world’s insects and other animals.
Picker’s cockroach is joined on the list by a mushroom that glows in the dark and another that blooms underwater, a spider that weaves giant webs, bacteria found on the remains of the Titanic, a fish found in Gulf of Mexico waters affected by the 2010 oil spill, a leech with enormous teeth, a cricket that pollinates a rare orchid, a giant, fruit-eating lizard, and a small antelope from West Africa.
Saltoblattella montistabularis — saltoblattella is Latin for “jumping cockroach” and montistabularis refers to Table Mountain — is a delicate creature just a centimeter (less than a third of an inch) long with powerful hind legs and bulging eyes. It could endear itself even to those who recoil at the thought of a household cockroach.
“It is quite a neat-looking thing. And they’re not clumsy,” Picker said. “It’s quite athletic, I must say.”
Picker and a student were using a net to sweep the grass in search of flies for a pollination study when they came across the cockroach in 2009. They worked with other scientists on a 2010 paper establishing the cockroach was unique. Scientists say of the 4,000-5,000 cockroach species, Saltoblattella montistabularis is the only one that jumps. Table Mountain draws more than 4 million tourist visits every year, and the Silvermine area where the cockroach was found is just a 10-minute drive from central Cape Town.
Picker cautions amateur scientists who might want to join in the search for new species that Table Mountain is a protected area, and plants and animals can’t be removed from it without permission. Picker said tourists are welcome to send him photos if they think they’ve stumbled on something new.
“It seems that there’s lots of exciting undiscovered insects and other animals in the Cape,” he said.
Quentin Wheeler, whose International Institute for Species Exploration at Arizona State University oversees compiling the annual list of discovered confirmed in the previous year, says some 10 million species are waiting to be described, named and classified.
“Most people do not realize just how incomplete our knowledge of Earth’s species is,” Wheeler said in a statement. “We are surrounded by such an exuberance of species diversity that we too often take it for granted.”