In the world of insects, the Kansas version of the jumping bristletail is a little thing, about an inch long, a third of that being body and the rest tail (three of them, in fact). It is not known either for good or ill. It is not even certain what it eats.
But it looms large in entomological circles because it is "considered to be the most primitive of the insects," according to Dr. Richard Packauskas (pronounced PACK-owss-kus), associate professor of biology at Fort Hays State University.
And the Kansas bristletail, thanks to work by Packauskas and one of his students, Ryan Shofner, Littleton, Colo., senior, can now be recognized as a separate species, forthaysi (rhymes with eye), within the genus Hypomachilodes (HYPO-mack-uh-LOW-dees). Their research has been published in the Journal of the Kansas Entomological Society (also known as the Central States Entomological Society), October 2010, Vol. 83, No. 4, pages 340-346.
The discovery of any new species of any animal is rare, but that was not the only rarity on display at a news conference today at FHSU's Sternberg Museum of Natural History. The other was the fact that a biological studies undergraduate was an active participant in all aspects of the research -- the field work, the search through the literature and the scanning electron microscope work.
As Shofner said later, "Very few institutions the size of Fort Hays State have an SEM, a scanning electron microscope, and if they do, you can bet that undergraduates don't get to work with it. And it's the same at the big research institutions, too. Undergraduates might get a class about it, but they don't get to work a project on it."
"This is another shining example of what makes our students ready for the world when they leave here," said FHSU President Edward H. Hammond. "What is on display here today is not only a significant achievement by Dr. Packauskas and Ryan Shofner, but it is also the fact that at FHSU, undergraduate students have opportunities to do so much more than at most institutions.
"It is almost unheard of anywhere else but here that an undergraduate student would be allowed to participate in research work like this. What's more, here at FHSU they are actively encouraged to do so.
"It is even rarer that institutions our size and even larger have equipment such as a scanning electron microscope. To go a little further, I would say that it is almost unheard of that undergraduates are allowed, let alone urged, to use such equipment if they have it."
FHSU acquired the scanning electron microscope in 1982 through a grant from the National Science Foundation. University funds updated it in 2006 to give it digital imaging capabilites.
"I want to say how fantastic the biology program is here at Fort Hays State," said Shofner, when it came his turn to speak at the news conference. "I also appreciate how close the faculty here works with the students, not just on research but on everything. It really is a personalized curriculum. We have a very well-rounded program."
"I would put our program up against any other university and we would come out on top," said Shofner. "I really fervently believe that. I actually persuaded two other students to come here."
Packauskas told how the project grew out of an entomology class two years ago. Part of the class work is that students are required to make an insect collection. Six of Shofner's specimens were jumping bristletails, and he and Shofner set about trying to identify its family, but the family they identified, using the keys in textbooks, turned out to be one that was unknown in Kansas.
"I told Ryan that he should take a research class with me the following semester and, as he was interested in learning electron microscopy, that he should take that class as well and use the bristletail as a study specimen," said Packauskas. "We also applied for an undergraduate research grant and received some collecting equipment that allowed us to garner 16 more specimens."
The result, after two years' research and writing, is Hypomachilodes forthaysi, documented in the journal of the Central States Entomological Society.
"We also decided," said Packauskas, "that it should be named with the epithet forthaysi due to the fact that the first three specimens Ryan caught came from a spot of land owned by Fort Hays State University that consists of 35 acres of land that is fenced off and has not been grazed for over 100 years."
Packauskas added another detail about the insect. "We have since found the insect in other localities and actually believe that it may occur across the state, but has been misidentified for a long time."
He also said it is called a "jumping bristletail" because, as small as it is, the creature can actually jump about six inches.
The discovery of a new species was recognized and praised by Dr. Elmer Finck, the department chair, and the dean of the College of Health and Life Sciences, Dr. Jeff Briggs.
"This is a great opportunity for an undergraduate student to pick up a new species in Kansas," said Finck, "and the reason he was able to do that is he was working on the project with Dr. Packauskas, who recognized it was unusual for Kansas, and with further research recognized that it was a new species to the world."
It is, said Finck, "a significant find, because the bristletail is an ancestral group to the rest of the insects."
"This project is an excellent example of what makes Fort Hays State University special," said Briggs. "The ability for students to explore areas of interest, work side-by-side with faculty and participate directly in the research process is what makes Fort Hays State University an exceptional place to live and learn. The Department of Biological Sciences is a leader in exposing students to the world of scholarly inquiry, and we have many examples of collaborative research projects involving students and faculty leading to professional presentation and publication."
The journal can be found online at http://www.bioone.org/loi/kent. The website of the FHSU Department of Biological Sciences is www.fhsu.edu/biology/.