Decades Old Amber Collection Screened

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Lost World in Amber

Palaeontologist Sam Heads along with Jared Thomas and Yinan Wang of the Illinois Natural History Survey are screening a 2-million-year-old collection of amber that was discovered in the Dominican Republic 50 years ago. The team until now has screened more than 160 pounds of amber which was collected in late 1950s by former INHS entomologist Milton Sanderson in the Dominican Republic.

The most striking discovery so far is that of a pygmy locust, a tiny grasshopper which is the size of a rose thorn that fed on moss, algae and fungi. The specimen is remarkable because it represents an intermediate stage of evolution in the life of its subfamily of locusts (Cladonotinae) which possessed vestigial wings. Ancient locusts had wings while their modern counterparts do not, and the specimen shows that they had already lost function of these wings.

Heads has named the new pygmy locust Electrotettix attenboroughi, the genus name a combination of electrum (Latin from Greek, meaning "amber") and tettix (Greek, meaning "grasshopper"). The species is named after Sir David Attenborough, a British naturalist and filmmaker. The process of screening the amber is slow and painstaking. Much of the amber is clouded with oxidation, and researchers must carefully cut and polish "windows" in it to get a good look at what's inside. In addition to the pygmy locust, Heads and his colleagues have found mating flies, stingless bees, gall midges, Azteca ants, wasps, bark beetles, mites, spiders, plant parts and even a mammal hair.

Fossil insects can provide a lot of insight into the evolution of specific traits and behaviours, and they also tell us about the history of the time period. When the collection is fully screened, a task that will take many years, it will be the largest unbiased Dominican amber collection in the world.

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