Scientists Discover New Prehistoric Insects
Scientists Discover New Prehistoric Insects in Triassic Amber
Stephen Spielberg released the film version of Jurassic Park 18 years ago, and the idea of finding prehistoric insects in amber has stuck in the public imagination ever since. Now, scientists in Italy have found a treasure trove dating back even earlier than InGen scientists would have used in the Spielberg film or Crichton novel.
After studying nearly 70,000 pieces of amber from the Dolomite Alps in northeastern Italy, researchers have identified two mites and part of a fly dating back to the Triassic Period, around 230 million years ago, making the insects about 100 million years older than any such specimens previously discovered. Although older specimens have been found fossilized in rock, the amber provides an excellent snapshot of the insects from when they were still alive, allowing scientists to examine them in great detail.
For reference, the Triassic is the first period of the Mesozoic Era, during which the dinosaurs and the first true mammals evolved. Dinosaurs were not, however, the dominant life form on the planet until the mass extinction at the end of the period which led into the more familiar Jurassic. The newly found insects predate even Coelophysis, one of the earliest dinosaurs, and would have shared their world with the earliest ancestors of crocodiles, frogs, and turtles.
The mites are microscopic and the fly is a bit bigger than a fruit fly, according to the researchers, who found them in pieces of amber measuring two to six millimeters in length. The mites are similar to modern-day gall mites, of which there are around 3,500 living species. Scientists distinguish them by “a long, segmented body; only two pairs of legs instead of the usual four found in mites; unique feather claws, and mouthparts,” according to Grimaldi Lindquist, a Canadian expert on the species. The find that the fossils were so similar to modern-day counterparts was somewhat surprising, as modern gall mites generally feed on flowering plants, whereas the new species, Triasacarus fedelei and Ampezzoa triassica, predate the existence of such plants.
The remains of the fly were not preserved well enough to determine a species, but the scientists hope that these discoveries will be the first of many. Either way, these fossils offer a tantalizing glimpse into how insect life and life on land in general evolved.