Millenium bug found by CSIRO scientists

December 31, 1999

It's the moment the world has been waiting for. Taxonomists at CSIRO Entomology have announced the discovery of the "real" Millennium Bug.

Head of the Australian National Insect Collection, Dr Ebbe Nielsen, reports that the bug, a small water strider, is harmless to computers. "It feeds on flies and other small insects, not files," he says.

Found at altitude in mountain streams of southeast Queensland and northeast NSW, this true bug is presently known to exist at only eight localities in that region. At about two millimetres in length, it lives on the surface of the water in quiet areas of freshwater streams.

"The "Millennium Bug" is a 'waiting' predator/scavenger that feeds on small insects," Dr Nielsen explains.

The bug's actual scientific name cannot be made public until international procedures for scientific naming are complete, but both its scientific and common names will be the "Millennium Bug".

The "Millennium Bug" belongs to a new genus of the family Veliidae (small water striders) that scientists Mr Tom Weir of CSIRO Entomology and Dr Nils Møller Andersen of the Zoological Museum, University of Copenhagen will describe in a scientific paper to be published shortly in the Australian journal Invertebrate Taxonomy.

"Inland freshwater is one of Australia's most important and precious resources, in terms of planning our future," Dr Nielsen says. "Protecting it is one of the great challenges we face in the new Millennium."

"The reason I asked Dr Andersen, who is the world authority on this group of insects, and Mr Weir to work on water striders is so we can use them to monitor the quality of freshwater all over Australia.

"Insects are very fine instruments for indicating the biological health of their environment. The goal here was to identify the various species of small water striders so we know exactly what they can tell us about the health of our streams and waterbodies."

Bugs from the Veliidae family are often found in tropical and subtropical regions of the world and occur on many oceanic islands. Relatives are the only insects to inhabit the surface of the open oceans.

"This new genus includes four species, of which three, including the Millennium Bug, are new to science," says Mr Weir. "These bugs have an interesting adaptation of the tarsi (feet) that enables them to 'glide' across the surface of the water without breaking the surface tension."

"The study of the Millennium Bug and its relatives is part of a much larger project that involves the study and identification of thousands of specimens from the Australasian region belonging to the infra-order Gerromorpha, the most diverse group of animals associated with water surfaces," he explains.

In 1992-1994, the Australian Biological Resources Study (ABRS) funded a project to study the semi-aquatic bugs of Australia, in particular their taxonomy, evolution, and biogeography. From a starting point of one genus, Microvelia, Mr Weir and Dr Andersen have now described eight related genera in Australia.

"This is yet another remarkable indication of how much of Australia's biological wealth remains undiscovered at the start of the 21st Century," says Dr Nielsen.

"So far we have scientifically described fewer than a third of the insect species on this continent. The work of exploring Australia scientifically is still in its early stages."

The World fauna of semi-aquatic bugs is placed in eight families of which six are represented in the Australian fauna. Today, about 126 species are known from Australia. The diversity varies significantly among different parts of Australia, from Tasmania (5 species), South Australia (7), Victoria (12), and NSW (21), to WA (26), NT (56), and Queensland (85 species). The largest families are the Gerridae (35 species) and Veliidae (66 species).
More information:
Dr Ebbe Nielsen
02-6246-4258 (w)
02-6253-3463 (ah)
0419-418-745 (m)

Julian Cribb

CSIRO Australia

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