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99-Million-Year-Old Beetle Found Trapped In Amber

Aug 17, 2018 08:50 PM EDT
An illustration of the ecological reconstruction of a Mid-Cretaceous beetle pollinating a plant.
(Photo : Chenyang Cai | Current Biology)

A new discovery of a beetle preserved in 99-million-year-old amber offers a picture of some of the earliest pollinating insects on the planet.

The pollinating relationship between bees and butterflies with flowers is well-documented. Less well-known is the pollinating abilities of bees, which dates back to millions of years and involves non-flowering plants or gymnosperms.

First Evidence Of Insect, Gymnosperm Relationship

In the new research published in the journal Current Biology, scientists share their findings on the oldest known fossil evidence of the bond shared by gymnosperms and insects.

Specifically, the team found and analyzed a 99-million-year-old boganiid beetle trapped inside a Burmese amber from Kachin State, Myanmar.

The insect was found with tiny grains of cycad pollen, confirming early suggestions that cycads were pollinated by beetles. Some of the beetle's special adaptations are mandibles with hairy cavities that are meant to carry and transport the cycad pollen collected.

After the study researchers cut, trimmed, and polished the specimen, they examined it under a microscope. Indeed, the beetle had clumps of pollen grains with it. A consulting expert confirmed the pollen came from a cycad plant.

Chenyang Cai, study lead author and now a research fellow at the University of Bristol, explains that he was instantly intrigued by the discovery of the beetle.

"Boganiid beetles have been ancient pollinators for cycads since the Age of Cycads and Dinosaurs," he points out in a statement.

In the study, the authors also take a dive into the boganiid beetle's family tree. The fossilized insect is reportedly related to an Australian beetle that's still in existence and remain pollinating cycads.

Cai has been attempting to find similar beetle pollinators that are left undiscovered.

What The Findings Mean

The new study reveals that ancient beetles pollinated cycads way before other insects pollinated flowering plants. 

The beetle and amber discovered may have been only 99 million years old, but Cai and fellow author Michael Engel believe that it could be representative of a process that possibly dates back to the Triassic Period, according to New York Times. If this is true, beetles may have been pollinating gymnosperms for over 100 million years before the bees and the butterflies even started pollinating angiosperms.

"Insects and plants are the two dominant titans of our world," Engel tells New York Times. "The intimate, love-hate relationship between these two behemoths of diversity through time is a major tale to tell, and this fossil is just one component of that."

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