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Amber-Trapped 'Attenborough' Locust Offers Evolutionary Insight

Jul 30, 2014 06:26 PM EDT

Researchers have just begun scouring through a massive collection of ancient amber, already finding some amazing things including the discovery of a 20-million-year-old sample of a locust that could fill an evolutionary gap in the fossil records.

The entire amber collection was found in the Dominican Republic more than 50 years ago, and has so-far been dated to be from between 18- and 20-million years ago. The full curation of the 160 pound collection is expected to take many years, but once its completed, it will be the largest Dominican amber collection in the world, according to the Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS).

The first major discovery, the discovery of an ancient pygmy locust - an exceptionally tiny grasshopper - has since been officially named Electrotettix attenboroughi, honoring Sir David Attenborough.

Attenborough, a famous naturalist and filmmaker, was exceptionally pleased with this honor, and even offered to narrate a short video detailing the discovery and INHS efforts to catalogue the collection.

Paleontologist Sam Heads, who discovered the locust specimen alongside Jared Thomas and Yinan Wang, said that Attenborough has always been an inspiration of his.

"Sir David has a personal interest in amber, and also he was one of my childhood heroes... so I decided to name the species in his honor," he said in a statement.

Unique name aside, the amber sample served to fill a gap in the fossil record, representing a phase of evolutionary branching where a specific grasshopper subfamily of locusts, known as the Cladonotinae, were already in the process of losing wing function, but still had useless vestigial wings.

Modern Cladonotinae do not have any wings at all.

"Grasshoppers are very rare in amber and this specimen is extraordinarily well-preserved," said Heads, who hopes to find similarly important specimens as he continues his work.

"Fossil insects can provide lots of insight into the evolution of specific traits and behaviors, and they also tell us about the history of the time period," he added. "They're a tremendous resource for understanding the ancient world, ancient ecosystems and the ancient climate - better even, perhaps, than dinosaur bones."

A study detailing this first discovery was published in the journal ZooKeys on July 30.

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