Froghopper from Montana

Our team collected many interesting new fossils during fieldwork in Montana last month. Here team member Susan McIntyre poses with a beautifully preserved spittlebug wing she discovered at one of the excavation sites in the Oligocene Renova Formation.

Spittlebugs (also called froghoppers) are insects of the superfamily Cercopoidea (order Hemiptera). They feed by sucking juices from plants through their straw-like mouthparts and are capable of jumping impressive distances. Their common name comes from their habit of surrounding themselves in protective froth as nymphs.

Preserving a fragile history

ALDER, MONTANA – I drive slowly over the hilly terrain in Fossil Basin and park near the remnants of an old campsite. In the 1950s and early 1960s, botanist Herman Becker camped here and collected fossil insects and plants from the Renova Formation’s paper shales.

Go behind the scenes with M. Jared Thomas in this article from the U of I News Bureau.

Drawing insights from ancient plants

ALDER, MONTANA – I’m sitting near the top of our fossil excavation site in southwest Montana, my hammer and shovel ready. I have a perfect view of the mountains. A wall of fossil-laden shale lies before me, and I’m ready to dig in.

Go behind the scenes with Danielle Ruffatto in this article from the U of I News Bureau.

The fossils of Madison County (Montana)

ALDER, MONTANA – Standing at the foot of the mountains, I look to the east. It’s still early and I have hiked up here alone to gather my thoughts. I can see why they call this “Big Sky Country.” The tree-covered foothills of the mountains behind me give way to rolling scrubland. Stunted trees mark the edges of dry creek beds cut into the soft rocks below. This is southwest Montana, and I’m here to hunt.

Go behind the scenes with paleontologist Sam Heads as he hunts for fossils in Montana in this article from the U of I News Bureau.

New study reveals evolutionary patterns of grasshoppers, crickets, and katydids over the past 300 million years

INHS orthopterist and paleontologist Sam Heads was co-author on a recently published study determining the evolutionary relationships of the grasshoppers, katydids, and crickets. The current study is based on genetics rather than morphological characteristics.

The Origin of Grasshoppers, Katydids, and Crickets: A New Study Resolves the Evolutionary Tree of the Orthoptera

Decades-old amber collection offers new views of an ancient world

Illinois Natural History Survey paleontologist Sam Heads, left, and laboratory technician Jared Thomas are screening 160 pounds of amber collected in the Dominican Republic in the late 1950s. Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

INHS Paleontologist Sam Heads, Jared Thomas, and Yinan Wang found a new pygmy locust embedded in amber. In a paper released today, the species was described and named Electrotettix attenboroughi, in honor of Sir David Attenborough. Attenborough narrated a video about their research. To find out more, read this article by the U of I News Bureau.

INHS entomologists comment on fossil stick insects

Following the discovery of fossil stick insects by a team of Chinese and French scientists, INHS Paleontologist Sam Heads and Illinois State Entomologist Chris Dietrich were contacted by National Geographic to comment. Heads told National Geographic that the discovery of fossilized plant mimicking insects, “is yet more tantalizing evidence of early insect-plant coevolution.”

Ancient ‘fig wasp’ lived tens of millions of years before figs

INHS Paleontologist Sam Heads found an ancient fig wasp that pre-dates any known fig trees. According to Heads, “This is a tiny parasitic wasp, it’s the smallest fossil wasp found in this particular deposit and it’s the oldest representative of its family. More importantly, it’s possible that this wasp was fig-associated, which is interesting because it’s Early Cretaceous, about 115 to 120 million years old. That’s a good 65 million years or so prior to the first occurrence of figs in the fossil record.”

Portrait of a killer: Arilus cristatus, the wheel bug

Arilus cristatus, the wheel bug, is a truly impressive insect and one that I was fortunate enough to encounter today on my way into work. I came across this spectacular individual crossing the street outside our building this morning and collected it so I could take some photos later in the lab.

Wheel bugs are a a type of large assassin bug, a diverse group of true bugs in the family Reduviidae. As their name suggests, assassin bugs are deadly predators, feeding voraciously on other arthropods. Like all hemipterans, the mouthparts of assassin bugs consist of a long, segmented tube called a rostrum. Most hemipterans use this piercing apparatus to suck sap from the stems of plants, but the assassin bugs put it to a far more sinister use, empaling their prey and injecting lethal saliva packed with digestive enzymes which liquefy the unfortunate victim’s innards. The nutrient-rich soup is then sucked out with the rostrum acting rather like a straw.

Arilus cristatus and most of the other assassin bugs are beneficial insects, feeding on numerous arthropod pests. While the larger species like the wheel bug can inflict a painful bite when provoked, most reduviids are generally harmless to humans. However, members of the subfamily Triatominae are haematophagous and make a living drinking the blood of vertebrates, including humans. Indeed, triatomines are commonly called “kissing bugs” due to their habit of biting people on the face while they sleep. Unfortunately, they are potential vectors for the parasitic trypanosome that causes Chagas disease, a dangerous tropical illness.