Featherwing beetles are some of the smallest insects out there – and one researcher managed to spot an ancient specimen in a 99-million-year-old chunk of amber. Just half a millimetre long, this Cretaceous period beetle had its signature fringed wings unfurled when it met its sticky demise.
No, not that big, unidentified insect at right; Jason is the teeny beetle at the very bottom. Photo: Shuhei Yamamoto, Field Museum
“These beetles lived in the Cretaceous, so they lived with dinosaurs,” said Shuhei Yamamoto, an entomologist at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, who discovered the beetle.
Featherwing beetles don’t flap their wings, but instead use them to glide through the air like a dandelion wisp. Yamamoto told Gizmodo that this beetle was probably gliding when it got caught in some tree sap, where it has remained for millions of years.
The researchers decided to name the little guy Jason, a reference to the ancient Greek hero who sailed around the world looking for the Golden Fleece. The beetle’s official species name is Kekveus jason, as described in a study published last month in the journal Cretaceous Research.
Yamamoto initially wasn’t sure if Jason was an insect or just a bit of dust, but after much cutting, polishing, zooming and photographing, he could confirm that the speck was indeed a tiny, prehistoric beetle. “It took us more than two years to get the photos we used in the paper,” he said.
“It is very hard to spot tiny things in amber,” said Paul Selden, a palaeontologist and arachnologist at the University of Kansas who was not involved with the new study. “However, when you get a polished piece under the microscope, and can spend a lot of time searching it, then all kinds of interesting things emerge. It is time-consuming, but well worth it.”
Jason died ready for its closeup, showing off fringed wings that let it glide around. Photo: Shuhei Yamamoto, Field Museum
Jason, whose amber coffin was found in Hukawng Valley in northern Myanmar, is now the oldest known member of the featherwing beetle lineage. Today, you can see featherwing beetles – or maybe not, because they’re so teeny – sailing airspaces all over the world, mostly in temperate and tropical regions.
The fact that Jason has many of the same features as today’s featherwing beetles is important, Yamamoto said; it shows the species evolved its gliding ability and tiny stature earlier than entomologists had thought.
This latest amber discovery is one of many in the past year or two. A team including Selden found a spider with a tail in amber earlier this year, and others have found ticks wrapped in spider silk and a bug with bizarre googly-eyes.
And there should be many more such discoveries to come – Yamamoto said he is currently working on 30 different projects involving insects trapped in amber.