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'Fairy' insect is mind-blowingly tiny

John T. Huber

Tinkerbella nana, a new species of fairyfly from Costa Rica, is named after the fairy in "Peter Pan.".

By Stephanie Pappas
LiveScience

A new species of tiny fly named after the fairy in "Peter Pan" is mind-blowingly minuscule, with delicate wings trimmed in fringe.

Tinkerbella nana is a newly discovered species of fairyfly from Costa Rica. Fairyflies are a type of chalcid wasp, and almost all are parasites, living on the eggs and larvae of other insects. It's a gruesome way to live, but it makes fairyflies useful for farmers, who sometimes import them to control nasty pests.

John T. Huber

Tinkerbella nana is only about 250 nanometers long.

Many fairyflies are extraordinarily tiny, including Kikiki huna, a Hawaiian species that grows to be only 0.005 inches (0.13 millimeters) long — about the diameter of the tip of a fine drawing pen. This makes them tough to find, but researchers led by John Huber of Natural Resources Canada conducted their search by seeking out insect eggs in leaf litter, soil and on plants in the Costa Rican province of Alajeula.

There, they found specimens of T. nana, none of which were more than 250 micrometers in length. One micrometer is a thousandth of a millimeter.

Under the microscope, these teeny-tiny insects reveal fine detail, particularly their long, skinny wings, which terminate in hairlike fringe. This wing shape may help ultra-small insects reduce turbulence and drag when they fly, a feat that requires beating their wings hundreds of times per second.

Researchers don't know how small insects can get, Huber said.

"If we have not already found them, we must surely be close to discovering the smallest insects," he said in a statement. The researchers published their discovery Wednesday in the Journal of Hymenoptera Research.

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