The Office Hermit
The office hermit, Carausius officinalis, is not, as might be inferred from its name, an over-zealous company employee. It is, however, one of the youngest species of insects known today.
Belonging to the order Phasmotodea, otherwise known as stick insects (Europe and Australasia) or stick-bugs (United States and Canada), it is closely related to the Indian stick insect, Carausius morosus, a favorite in laboratory environments. The fact that it was first identified in Europe and North-America might seem confusing, in light of its Asian origins, but a recent theory of its evolutionary history, put forth by doctor Mohammed Lee, from the Tokyo branch of the Institute for Nonexisting Insect Studies (INIS), might be able to shed some light on the origins of this uncanny insect. To better understand this theory, let us first look at the animal in question.
The office hermit is found mainly in office environments, particularly in Universities and affiliated institutions, although in recent years it has spread throughout the entire spectrum of office-bearing infrastructures. The reason for this is evident if you take a look at the species. Like all stick insects, the office hermit's main defense against predators is camouflage. Unlike its relatives, however, it does not resemble a stick or a leaf. Instead, it looks very much like a pen, or pencil, rendering it inconspicuous in any office. Whereas most members of its order have a diet composed of leaves and green plants, the office hermit thrives on paper. Especially the bleach-free variant.
The animal is night-active, spending the day-time perfectly still, preferably somewhere out of sight, to avoid being picked up by mistake. Given its ability to reproduce by parthenogenesis (meaning that individuals can reproduce on their own, without the need for a sexual partner), a single individual can populate an entire office in a matter of months, or even weeks. But this same ability means that genetic variation can be extremely low within the species, or a sub-population thereof, because of the lack of genetic exchange through sexual reproduction. This peculiarity is what allowed doctor Lee to confirm his theory about the evolution of Carausius officinalis.
Given that its closest relative is indigenous to India, and the species first appeared in Europe and North-America, doctor Lee stipulated that it had to represent an evolutionary offshoot from one or several escaped laboratory subjects. After analyzing the genome of several "wild" individuals, and comparing them to records of captive animals, he concluded that the origin of this new species resided in the Center for Stick Insect Studies (CSIS), in Norwich, Great Britain. This theory, however, did not explain the huge morphologic variations found within the species, and between the office hermit and other families of Phasmotodea. Combined with its unusual diet, and the fact that both of those characteristics seem to have appeared in a matter of decades, the office hermit violently contradicts what we know of evolutionary speed in insects. However, a more recent study of the entirety of the animal's genome might provide some answers.
Scientists at the New York Center for the Study of Completely Crazy Stuff (NYC-SCCS) have identified a cluster of genes which seem to be highly unstable, and thus extremely prone to mutation. Even though such high plasticity on aspects as important to the survival of an individual, such as morphology and dietary habits, would usually result in a highly increased death-rate in offspring, developmental research by the NYC-SCCS suggests that selection already occurs at the very first stages of development, minimizing the cost of producing non-viable offspring, and only allowing individuals with a high chance of survival to complete maturation. How the animals are capable of recognizing defective individuals this early in their life-cycle remains a mystery.
Being considered a pest at first, the office hermit has recently found new appreciation, as a number of institutions across the world have decided to put it to work. It has been observed that the animals are especially fond of humid paper, probably due to the fact that the soft paper is easier for them to chew and digest, and water is not always within easy reach in an office at night. The NSA is reported to use this technique to attract the animals, and use them as a means of destroying highly sensitive information. And several start-ups are experimenting to try and use the species to transform paper-waste into high-quality fertilizer.
In the meantime, there has been a surge in the number of online stick-insect enthusiasts looking to trade different morphs of the species, and office hermit breeding farms have sprung up throughout the world.