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

A dorsal view of the mid Cretaceous beetle Cretoparacucujus cycadophilus including the mandibular cavities it likely used for pollination. Credit Chenyang Cai

Belonging to the time of the Cretaceous when the dinosaurs T-rex were roaming the earth, the creature was existent crawling over the trousers and flowers. The little fellow was preserved with pilfered pollen from a cycad.

The beetle, named Cretoparacucujus cycadophilus, is distinct in its form, compared to today's beetles.

The fossil represents the earliest definitive fossil evidence for cycad-insect interactions, and illuminates the ancient history of the establishment of complex entomophily in cycads.

These primitive evergreens resemble palms and have been around for 300 million years but are now among the most threatened on Earth.

A chunk of amber featuring a bettle was presented by Diying Huang at the Chinese Academy of Sciences to Chenyang Cai, who is now a fellow at the University of Bristol.

It is believed that the mutually beneficial cooperation of Coleoptera beetles and cycads are commenced not less than 250 million years ago and possibly much earlier, although direct paleontological evidence is not found. 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. But before angiosperms, animals like the 160-million-year-old Lichnomesopsyche gloriae, an extinct scorpionfly, used its 10-millimeter-long proboscis as a straw to suck out nectar from gymnosperms (flowerless plants), spreading pollen in the process.

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

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The most impressive feature of Cretoparacucujus is its big head. Cycads are ancient plants.

The Early Jurassic is a geological period that spans from 201.3 to 174.1 million years ago. Its length is only a couple millimetres, the insect has long mandibles, which is traditional for cycads pollinators.

After cutting, trimming, and polishing the specimen to get a better look under a microscope, his excitement only grew.

"It is remarkable several aggregations of exquisitely preserved pollen grains are located along the left side of the fossil beetle and with two pollen grains close to the head", said Dr. Cai in comments obtained by the Daily Mail. Li analyzed pollen grains from the amber first spotted by Cai, confirming that it had come from a cycad.

In the study, the authors also take a dive into the boganiid beetle's family tree.

Beetles commonly pollinate cycads in South Africa and Australia - supporting an ancient origin of the relationship, say the researchers.

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