About 100 million years ago in present-day Myanmar, a tiny beetle flew into a coniferous tree and became engulfed in its resin. Over time, the resin fossilized into amber — with the beetle fully encased — resulting in one of the most spectacularly preserved ancient beetle specimens yet described.
“For a beetle taxonomist and for the entomological community as a whole, this is an exciting discovery,” said Michael Caterino, director of the Clemson University Arthropod Collection. “This is an extraordinary 99 million-year-old fossil in Burmese amber. We can see all the details of the external sculpturing of the wing covers and the head. We can see the mouth parts, which enable us to predict that this was a predator much like its modern relatives. And it has a lot of tantalizing characteristics that we hypothesized early members of this family had. But we no longer have to guess. Now we can confirm.”
The ancient insect is a member of a family of beetles called Histeridae, which still thrive today with more than 4,000 species. Caterino has co-authored a research article, published in the journal Zootaxa, about the discovery.
“This is a new fossil genus species that we’ve called Cretonthophilus tuberculatus,” Caterino said. “Cretonthophilus indicates that it’s a Cretaceous relative of the modern-day genus Onthophilus, while tuberculatus refers to the large bumps on the sides of its thorax.”
Several aspects of the anatomy of the new species suggest that the fossil species may have been associated with early ants. This is a common with beetles, and this would be one of the earliest associations. However, at this point it can only be hypothesized.
Fossils provide windows into the past, and with today’s high-tech visualization and DNA technologies, along with a form of X-ray imaging called micro computed tomography that can peek internally into tiny structures, scientists are able to obtain more detailed data from fossil specimens than ever before. Caterino is currently discussing the possibility of CT-scanning the unique specimen of Cretonthophilus to see if its internal anatomy is as well-preserved as its exterior structure.
“In determining evolutionary relationships by looking only at modern species, scientists are essentially guessing what the ancestors must have looked like,” Caterino said. “But in this case, we are able to see the ancestor. This gives us a lot of incentive to go into more fossil collections and search for more evidence of what creatures looked like — and even how they behaved — millions of years ago.”
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