Megaphragma mymaripenne is a microscopically sized wasp. At 200 μm in length, it is the third-smallest extant insect, comparable in size to single-celled organisms. It has a highly reduced nervous system, containing only 7400 neurons, several orders of magnitude fewer than in larger insects. This is the smallest known number of neurons in all insects and in all flying animals. Its average lifespan at adulthood is 5 days.
In January 1920, specimens of an unknown insect were collected in Hawaii associated with thrips, to which they were suspected to be egg parasites. The insects were described as a new species and genus Megaphragma mymaripenne, in 1924 by Philip Hunter Timberlake. M. mymaripenne specimens were next found on 29 March 1927, again with thrips, on the leaf of a Croton genus plant. On 10 May 1930, specimens were found near thrips and thrip eggs, and mature pupae were found inside the thrip eggs. As of 1930, the genus was not thought to be native to Hawaii.
Nervous systems are one of the principal factors that limit shrinking body size. The entire central nervous system forms 6% of the body mass of M. mymaripenne, and the brain itself makes up 2.9%. Of the wasp's 7400 neurons, 4600 are located in the brain. A small insect from other families often deals with the issue of having a large brain in relation to its head size by shifting its brain into its thorax and even abdomen. However, wasps cannot, as to keep their heads flexible, the head's connection to the thorax is relatively limited.
Uniquely, by the time M. mymaripenne reaches adulthood, 95% of its nervous cells have lost their nuclei. Only 339–372 nuclei are found throughout the central nervous system, of which 179–253 are found in the brain. The nervous system of the pupae of M. mymaripenne makes up 19% of its body mass, 11% of which is the brain. Unlike in adults, cells in the pupae have nuclei. Only in the final stage of development do these undergo lysis, which greatly reduces the volume of the nervous system. While the brains of pupae are 93,600 μm3, those of the adults are only 52,200 μm3. Accompanying this shrinkage of brain volume is a shrinking of the occipital area of the head, with the cuticle folding into helical spirals.
Despite their reduced nervous systems, adult wasps retain the ability to fly, to feed, and to locate hosts in which to lay their eggs. The wasp eggs are deposited in the eggs of thrips. To emerge, the wasps cut an 80-90 μm near-circular hole in the eggs.
- Yong, Ed. "How tiny wasps cope with being smaller than amoebas". Discover Magazine. Retrieved 8 February 2012.
- Polilov, Alexey A (January 2012). "The smallest insects evolve anucleate neurons". Arthropod Structure & Development. 41 (1): 29–34. doi:10.1016/j.asd.2011.09.001. Retrieved 8 February 2012.
- Pemberton, C E (April 1931). "An Egg Parasite of Thrips in Hawaii" (PDF). Proceedings of the Hawaiian Entomological Society. VII (3): 481–482.