This lucky wasp did not get eaten by the spider attacking it. But when we say “lucky,” we mean it only in a certain sense: moments after the wasp’s capture, they were both overtaken by a flow of tree resin and were preserved in amber for the next 100 million years, while their species and their dinosaur contemporaries from the Early Cretaceous period went extinct. The amber fossil is described in a new paper by George Poinar, the entomologist whose investigations into extracting dinosaur DNA from amber-locked mosquitoes inspired the book and movie, Jurassic Park. New research into the half-life of DNA puts that out of the question, but who knows: it might not be too late for these ancient bugs to cut a movie deal.
Photo via Oregon State University/Flickr
A 230-million-year-old mite preserved in amber
An insect trapped in amber, perfectly preserved for millions of years: the image is familiar to fans of Jurassic Park, but in fact, few insects got stuck in sticky tree resin until about 130 million years ago—long after the Jurassic period ended. That’s when trees first began to produce enough of it to ensnare flies and mites.
Or so paleontologists believed. Three newly discovered bugs in amber may force a revision of that timeline. As a new study reports in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, these specimens are 230 million years old.
Peering inside an ancient piece of amber, scientists have uncovered the oldest direct evidence of pollination: insects covered in pollen grains, likely from a gingko tree, from between 105 and 110 million years ago. These insects—a new genus of thrips, insects that still scuttle around today—had likely gathered pollen for food, trailing it from plant to plant along the way. To get an even closer look at the specimens (without cracking open the amber), the researchers took the lump to the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility. There, they used synchrotron X-ray tomography to generate a detailed 3-D image of the bugs, revealing tiny, specialized hairs they used to collect pollen grains (which are shown here in yellow).
A huge bounty of amber unearthed in India is giving researchers a peak at the wildlife that inhabited the area 50 million years ago, via the insects that are trapped inside it. The findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggest that the Indian subcontinent was not as isolated as previously thought.
“We know India was isolated, but … the biological evidence in the amber deposit shows that there was some biotic connection,” says David Grimaldi, curator in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology at the [American Museum of Natural History]. [Press release]
About 150 million years ago, the Indian tectonic plat separated from the African plate and began its 100 million year journey to Asia. During that long journey the subcontinent was isolated from all other continents, giving its wildlife the chance to evolve in distinctly different ways (much like the evolution of marsupials in Australia). Since the amber was deposited in the form of sticky tree resin 50 million years ago, it gives researchers insight into the insects that were adrift on the subcontinent.
“The amber shows, similar to an old photo, what life looked like in India just before the collision with the Asian continent,” says Jes Rust, professor of Invertebrate Paleontology at the Universität Bonn in Germany. “The insects trapped in the fossil resin cast a new light on the history of the sub-continent.” [Press release]