eBay insect makes name for scientist

PUBLISHED: 15:25 27 August 2008 | UPDATED: 13:31 06 May 2010

The aphid preserved in a blob of amber for tens of millions of years. Photo: Rothamsted Research Visual Communications Unit

The aphid preserved in a blob of amber for tens of millions of years. Photo: Rothamsted Research Visual Communications Unit

A SCIENTIST has discovered a previously-unknown species of insect after purchasing an ancient fossil from an online auction site for just £20. Entomologist Dr Richard Harrington, from Harpenden, bought the aphid encased in Baltic amber from eBay more tha

Dr Harrington with the tiny blob of amber in his hand. Photo: Rothamsted Research Visual Communications Unit

A SCIENTIST has discovered a previously-unknown species of insect after purchasing an ancient fossil from an online auction site for just £20.

Entomologist Dr Richard Harrington, from Harpenden, bought the aphid encased in Baltic amber from eBay more than two years ago and following extensive investigation it has now been revealed as a newly-identified species.

Dr Harrington, aged 53, has worked at Rothamsted Research in Harpenden for 29 years and it was one of his colleagues, Dr Colin Denholm, who spotted the fossil for him.

After examining the specimen with his team of aphid specialists, Dr Harrington, who is the deputy science director at the Centre for Bioenergy and Climate Change at Rothamsted, sent the insect to a world expert on fossil aphids in Copenhagen for identification.

The expert, Professor Ole Heie, believed the specimen to be an unknown type of Mindarus genus and named it Mindarus harringtoni after Dr Harrington.

The aphid - which is the name given to small plant-feeding insects - is thought to be around 35 to 50 million years old and judging by the plant remains within the amber, it is likely to have originated from a tropical climate. But the fossilised insect, which is about the size of a Smartie sweet, was in fact bought from a seller in Lithuania.

There are around 4,400 known species of aphids and they vary in size from between one to 10 millimetres in length. Many can cause substantial damage to agriculture, horticulture and forestry.

Dr Harrington, who is the vice president of the St Albans-based Royal Entomological Society and is also the Scout District Commissioner for Wheathampstead and Harpenden, said: "I wanted the aphid to be named Mindarus ebayi but flippant species names are frowned upon these days! I'm delighted to have a work of nature named after me - even if it is an extinct fossil."

The aphid is now housed in the Natural History Museum and a full description of the insect has been published in the Royal Entomological Society's journal, Antenna.s

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