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Amber Preserves 16 Million-Year-Old Secret

Amber Preserves 16 Million-Year-Old Secret

Thursday, 28 November, 2019 - 09:00
This image released by the Royal Saskatchewan Museum in Canada shows a dinosaur tail complete with its feathers trapped in a piece of amber. Royal Saskatchewan Museum (RSM/ R.C. McKellar)/AFP/Getty Images

A piece of amber has preserved a 16-million-year-old secret that may change many ideas about the so-called springtail insects.

Amber, or amber gum, was produced by extinct coniferous trees when wounded so they could protect themselves from disease. The amber piece found in the Dominican Republic documented an ancient interaction between 25 springtails attached to a large winged termite. Most springtails possess a specialized appendage under their abdomen they use to "spring" away in flee-like fashion to avoid predation. However, this organ is not sufficient for traversing long distances, like those traversed by termites. The newly discovered amber suggests that termites played the role of the host that helped springtails to travel longer distances in search of new habitats.

For birds, butterflies, and other winged creatures, covering long distances may be as easy as the breeze they travel on. But for soil-dwellers of the crawling variety, the hurdle remains: How do they reach new, far-off habitats.

The new amber analyzed by US researchers in a study published in the BMC Evolutionary Biology journal, exhibits a number of springtails still attached to the wings and legs of their hosts. Researchers say the discovery highlights the existence of a new type of hitchhiking behavior among wingless soil-dwelling arthropods, and could be key to explaining how springtails successfully achieved dispersal worldwide.

"The existence of this hitchhiking behavior is especially exciting given the fact that modern springtails are rarely described as having any interspecific association with surrounding animals. This finding underscores how important fossils are for telling us about unsuspected ancient ecologies as well as still ongoing behaviors that were so far simply overlooked," said Lead Author Ninon Robin, from New Jersey Institute of Technology's Department of Biological Sciences in a report published on the institute's website.

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