50 million-year-old fossil assassin bug has unusually well-preserved genitalia

assassin bug fossil
Recovered from the Green River Formation in present-day Colorado, this fossil represents a new genus and species of predatory insects known as assassin bugs. Researchers named the specimen Aphelicophontes danjuddi. A small beetle was also fossilized with the specimen. Photos by Daniel Swanson /Courtesy Palaeontological Association

The fossilized insect is tiny and its genital capsule, called a pygophore, is roughly the length of a grain of rice. It is remarkable, scientists say, because the bug’s physical characteristics – from the bold banding pattern on its legs to the internal features of its genitalia – are clearly visible and well-preserved. Recovered from the Green River Formation in present-day Colorado, the fossil represents a new genus and species of predatory insects known as assassin bugs.

The find is reported in the journal Papers in Palaeontology.

Discovered in 2006 by breaking open a slab of rock, the fossilized bug split almost perfectly from head to abdomen. The fracture also cracked the pygophore in two. A fossil dealer later sold each half to a different collector, and the researchers tracked them down and reunited them for this study.

“Being able to see a bug’s genitalia is very helpful when trying to determine a fossil insect’s place in its family tree,” said Sam Heads, a paleontologist at the Illinois Natural History Survey who led the research with Daniel Swanson, a graduate student in entomology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Read more about their findings.

National Science Foundation awards more than $480,000 to amber preservation project

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded more than $480,000 to a Prairie Research Institute (PRI) project to preserve and digitize an extensive collection of Dominican amber that is in danger of deterioration without proper curation and care. The plants, arthropods, and vertebrates captured in the amber provide insights into life 16-18 million years ago, during the Early Miocene epoch.

The Milton Sanderson Dominican Amber Collection is the oldest and perhaps largest collection of Early Miocene Dominican amber in the world, consisting of approximately 140,000 pieces collected in 1959 by Illinois Natural History Survey entomologist Milton Sanderson.

“In addition to its sheer size, the Sanderson collection is notable because it’s unbiased,” said project principal investigator Sam Heads, curator and lead paleontologist for the PRI Center for Paleontology. “All other major amber collections are ‘cherry-picked,’ but this amber was collected in bulk from a single locality. Because of this, the collection can provide us with an invaluable snapshot of the biodiversity and ecology of the Dominican amber forest.”

The NSF funding will allow Heads and collection manager Jared Thomas to undertake the urgently needed conservation and curation of the collection. Rediscovered in 2011, the collection had been stored for decades in steel buckets, and during that time it was subjected to temperature and humidity fluctuations. The amber is now extremely fragile, prone to shattering and crumbling.

Read more about the amber preservation project.

Scientists find world’s oldest fossil mushroom

Roughly 115 million years ago, when the ancient supercontinent Gondwana was breaking apart, a mushroom fell into a river and began an improbable journey. Its ultimate fate as a mineralized fossil preserved in limestone in northeast Brazil makes it a scientific wonder, INHS scientists report in the journal PLOS ONE. Read the press release on this important find here.