30-million-year-old Baltic amber reveals lacewing that looks like mantis

The insect, described as Mantispa? damzenogedanica, helped reveal important insights into the morphology of these fascinating insects and how it changed through history

Guest blog post by Viktor Baranov

Lacewings (Neuroptera) are mostly known for representatives such as green lacewings or antlions, which are distinguished by their appearance – large eyes and four long wings – but also by their predatory larvae, which play an important role as pest control agents in agriculture. But few non-specialists know that some lacewings can look a lot like praying mantises.

Mantispa? damzenogedanica, general overview. Photo by V. Baranov

Mantis lacewings (Mantispida) are among the most charismatic, though rather poorly known representatives of the true lacewings. They look like small- to medium-sized praying mantises. Mantis lacewing are 5-47 mm long, and all of them have prominent grasping (also called raptorial) legs. This superficial resemblance is due to the convergent evolution of the shape in true mantises and mantis lacewings. Convergent evolution is a process of organisms evolving similar traits, due to their adaptation to the similar conditions – i.e. hummingbirds and sunbirds live on different continents but look very similar due to their similar lifestyle. This type of evolution has led to the similar shape of the grasping legs, which act as a couple of snap traps for unsuspecting prey. 

Going back to the Cretaceous, Mantis lacewings have a long geological record. There are plenty of Mesozoic records of them and their relatives, such as thorny lacewings (Rachiberothidae) and beaded lacewings (Berothidae), totalling  105 recorded specimens. Curiously, there is a clear gap in mantis lacewings records from the Cainozoic.

Until recently, no adult mantis lacewings had been recorded from Baltic amber. In a single case, fossil parasitoid larvae of mantis lacewings were found attached to their host, a spider.

This changed last year, when a beautiful specimen of the mantis lacewing, almost 2 cm long, was brought to our attention by a private amber collector and esteemed supporter of palaeoentomology research – Jonas Damzen from Vilnus, Lithuania. The specimen was found at the Yantarny mine in Kaliningrad oblast, Russia.

By analysing the morphology of this beautiful specimen, we found out that it is closely related to the extant genus Mantispa. However, it was impossible to conclusively corroborate its affinity, because important characters such as rear wing venation and genitalia were obscured by so called “verlummung” – a white film, which covers many of the fossils in Baltic amber.

Morphospace plot showing changes in the diversity of raptorial appendages over geological time. Image credit J. Haug/ V. Baranov

So, to deal with this uncertainty, we designated this specimen as “probable Mantispa” (Mantispa?). In our research article published in the journal Fossil Record, we gave it the name Mantispa? damzenogedanica. The specific epithet is a combination of ‘Damzen’, honouring Jonas Damzen, who found, prepared, and made the specimen available, and ‘gedanicum’, relative to one of the Latin names for Gdańsk, Poland, where the specimen is housed in the Museum of Gdańsk.

Except for being an impressive, large, imposing insect fossil of the mantis lacewing, and the first one in Baltic amber at that, M.? damzenogedanica also present an intriguing question: why are so few mantis lacewings recorded from this fossil deposit, which is among the best-studied in the world?

Baltic amber deposits were formed in the mid-to-late Eocene epoch (38-33.9 MYA) in Northern Europe. Current consensus on the climate of the area at the time stands that it was not dissimilar to the south of the North American eastern seaboard, for example the Carolinas or Florida’s Panhandle: it was warm-temperate. Such climate is in fact perfect for extant mantis lacewings, so it is logical to suggest that unsuitable climate was not the main reason for the rarity of these animals in Baltic amber.

Analysing the diversity of the shape of mantis lacewings, we found a surprising trend – since the Cretaceous, the diversity in the shape of their legs has decreased. While the shape of the raptorial legs in the Cretaceous was characterised by eclectic, amazing diversity, later mantis lacewings have a rather uniform shape of raptorial legs.

We are not sure what may have caused this decrease. We think that drastic biotic changes after the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event (the mass extinction that killed the dinosaurs) may have led to the environment becoming less conductive to mantis lacewings, which in turn decreased their diversity. Thus, it is likely that the rarity of mantis lacewings is simply a reflection of the decline in their diversity and abundance after the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction. 

Younger amber deposits (i.e. Dominican amber), and, of course, extant fauna display significant species diversity, but the diversity of shape never recovered after the Cretaceous. This new mantis lacewing from Baltic amber offers us a rare glimpse into a time when, in the world after dinosaurs, lacewings got a little less diverse and charismatic.

Research article: Baranov V, Pérez-de la Fuente R, Engel MS, Hammel JU, Kiesmüller C, Hörnig MK, Pazinato PG, Stahlecker C, Haug C, Haug JT (2022) The first adult mantis lacewing from Baltic amber, with an evaluation of the post-Cretaceous loss of morphological diversity of raptorial appendages in Mantispidae. Fossil Record 25(1): 11-24. https://doi.org/10.3897/fr.25.80134

Natural History Museum of Berlin’s journal Fossil Record started publishing on ARPHA Platform

Fossil Record – the paleontological scholarly journal of the Natural History Museum of Berlin (Museum für Naturkunde Berlin) published its first articles after moving to the academic publisher Pensoft and its publishing platform ARPHA Platform in late 2021. The renowned scientific outlet – launched in 1998 – joined two other historical journals owned by the Museum: Deutsche Entomologische Zeitschrift and Zoosystematics and Evolution, which moved to Pensoft back in 2014.

Fossil Record – the paleontological scholarly journal of the Natural History Museum of Berlin (Museum für Naturkunde Berlin) published its first articles after moving to the academic publisher Pensoft and its publishing platform ARPHA in late 2021. The renowned scientific outlet – launched in 1998 – joined two other historical journals owned by the Museum: Deutsche Entomologische Zeitschrift and Zoosystematics and Evolution, which moved to Pensoft back in 2014.

Published in two issues a year, the open-access scientific outlet covers research from all areas of palaeontology, including the taxonomy and systematics of fossil organisms, biostratigraphy, palaeoecology, and evolution. It deals with all taxonomic groups, including invertebrates, microfossils, plants, and vertebrates.

As a result of the move to ARPHA, Fossil Record utilises the whole package of ARPHA Platform’s services, including its fast-track, end-to-end publishing module, designed to appeal to readers, authors, reviewers and editors alike. A major advantage is that the whole editorial process, starting from the submission of a manuscript and continuing into peer review, editing, publication, dissemination, archiving and hosting, happens within the online ecosystem of ARPHA. 

As soon as they are published, the articles in Fossil Record are available in three formats: PDF, machine-readable JATS XML and semantically enriched HTML for better and mobile-friendly reader experience. 

The publications are equipped with real-time metrics on both article and sub-article level that allow easy access to the number of visitors, views and downloads for every article and each of it’s figures, tables or supplementary materials. In their turn, the semantic enhancements do not only allow for easy navigation throughout the text and quick access to cited literature and the article’s own citations, but also tag each taxon that appears in the paper to provide links to further information concerning its occurrences, genomics, nomenclature, treatments and more as available from various databases.      

The first five papers – now available on the brand new journal website powered by ARPHA – already demonstrate the breadth of topics covered by Fossil Record, including systematics, paleobiogeography, palaeodiversity and morphology, as well as the international appeal of the scholarly outlet. The articles are co-authored by collaborative research teams representing ten countries and spanning three continents: Europe, Asia and Africa.

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About the Natural History Museum of Berlin:

The “Museum für Naturkunde – Leibniz Institute for Evolution and Biodiversity Science” is an integrated research museum within the Leibniz Association. It is one of the most important research institutions worldwide in the areas of biological and geological evolution and biodiversity.

The Museum’s mission is to discover and describe life and earth – with people, through dialogue. As an excellent research museum and innovative communication platform, it wants to engage with and influence the scientific and societal discourse about the future of our planet, worldwide. Its vision, strategy and structure make the museum an excellent research museum. The Natural History Museum of Berlin has research partners in Berlin, Germany and approximately 60 other countries. Over 700,000 visitors per year as well as steadily increasing participation in educational and other events show that the Museum has become an innovative communication centre that helps shape the scientific and social dialogue about the future of our earth. 

Jurassic Park in Eastern Morocco: Paleontology of the Kem Kem Group

The Kem Kem beds in Morocco are famous for the spectacular fossils found there, including at least four large-bodied non-avian theropods, several large-bodied pterosaurs and crocodilians. In their study, published in the open-access journal Zookeys, an international group of scientists, led by Dr. Nizar Ibrahim and Prof. Paul Sereno, evaluate the geological and paleontological significance of the study area.

The Kem Kem beds in Morocco are famous for the spectacular fossils found there, including at least four large-bodied non-avian theropods, several large-bodied pterosaurs and crocodilians.

Now, in a new geology and paleontology monograph, that reveals much more about the famous Kem Kem beds in Morocco, Dr. Nizar Ibrahim from the University of Detroit Mercy, Prof. Paul Sereno from the University of Chicago, and a team of international scholars from the United States, Europe and Morocco, have put together a comprehensive story that is published in the open-access journal Zookeys.

The aim of the new research is to provide the international community with an in-depth review of the rocks and fossils of the region. It reviews the geology and paleontology of this famous but surprisingly understudied area, describing and formally naming the strata and summarizing all of the preserved life forms, from fragile plants and insects to massive dinosaurs. The monograph also paints a picture of life as it once was some 95 million years ago by describing the paleoenvironments of the region, and the unusual predator-dominated fauna.

In 1996 Prof. Sereno and colleagues introduced the informal term “Kem Kem beds” for this fossil-rich escarpment. In this monograph, the authors review the original tri-level proposal for the region by French geologist Choubert (his informal “trilogie mésocretacée”) and propose the Kem Kem Group for the entire package of rock with two new names for the dinosaur-bearing layers based on the richest fossil sites, the Gara Sbaa and Douira formations.

The region is famous for the prodigious fossils found in all of these units, many derived from commercial fossil collecting, which obscures the precise location and level of the specimens. The monograph is the first work to pinpoint where many of the most important finds were made. Over the last 25 years in particular, paleontologists have brought to light a diverse array of new vertebrate fossils including at least four large-bodied non-avian theropods, several large-bodied pterosaurs, crocodilians, turtles and an array of sharks and bony fish.  

To put a comprehensive story together on the Kem Kem, the authors of the monograph visited collections of Kem Kem fossils around the world and led many expeditions to the region. Fossil and geological data reviewed in the monograph is derived from a number of different sources. A University of Chicago-led major expedition in 1995 generated a wealth of geological and paleontological data, as did later expeditions involving teams from the University College Dublin, the University of Portsmouth, the Faculté des Sciences Aïn Chock, the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, the University Cadi Ayyad, the Museo Civico di Storia Naturale (Milan), and the University of Detroit Mercy.

One of the key features of the Kem Kem assemblage is the presence of several large-bodied theropods, a group of dinosaurs that includes all of the meat-eaters. Most famous among these from the Kem Kem include the sail-backed Spinosaurus and the sabre-toothed Carcharodontosaurus.

Most fossils in the Kem Kem region are discovered as isolated fragmentary pieces weathered from sandstones. Only four partial dinosaur skeletons or skulls have been recovered, which include the long-necked sauropod Rebbachisaurus garasbae and the theropods Deltadromeus agilis, Carcharodontosaurus saharicus and Spinosaurus aegyptiacus. These Kem Kem theropods are among the largest known dinosaurian predators on record reaching adult body lengths in excess of 12 meters. 

“Given the continued input of new specimens and the continuing expansion of paleontological research, we predict that diversity in the Kem Kem Group will increase substantially in the coming decades. Based on our review of existing collections, this increase will include scores of taxa from the pond locality Oum Tkout including nonvertebrates, such as plants, insects, and ostracods, as well as an array of actinopterygian fish. We also anticipate a continuing trickle of new terrestrial vertebrates that will be named on better preserved specimens that are diagnostic at present only at the familial level, including turtles and various kinds of archosaurs. As nearly half of the reptilian families listed are indeterminate, better preserved specimens will offer future opportunities to recognize new reptilian genera” ,

share the authors.
Predators abound on land, in the air and in water some 95 million years on the shores of northern Africa —as shown by the abundant fossils in the Kem Kem region.
Large herbivores, such as the long-necked sauropod Rebbachisaurus, could have been hunted or scavenged by several large predators.
Credit: Artwork by Davide Bonadonna
License: CC-BY 4.0

“In summary, the Kem Kem assemblage of non-vertebrates and vertebrates is likely to continue to show dramatic increase in diversity in the coming decades. Nonetheless, the array of taxa currently known, which extends from plants across a range of aquatic and terrestrial vertebrates, is sufficiently mature to allow a summary of the vertebrate assemblage and a discussion of its paleoecological contex”,

conclude the researchers.

In his earlier research, a famous paleontologist from the University of Chicago Prof. Paul Sereno has described many outstanding dinosaur discoveries, including new Cretaceous crocodilians from the Sahara and two new fanged vegetarian dinosaur dwarfs (called heterodontosaurids). 


The most famous of Kem Kem dinosaurs, the semi-aquatic giant Spinosaurus, and the most common of Kem Kem fossils, the giant sawfish Onchopristis, tangle in the shallow coastal waters on a warm Late Cretaceous day.
Credit: Artwork by Davide Bonadonna
License: CC-BY 4.0

The wealth of aquatic life, including shrimp, bony fish, lungfish and giant lobe-finned coelacanths, supported a remarkable array of predators, including the fish-eating sail-backed Spinosaurus and toothless pterosaur Alanqa soaring overhead.
Credit: Artwork by Davide Bonadonna
License: CC-BY 4.0

Original source:

Ibrahim N, Sereno PC, Varricchio DJ, Martill DM, Dutheil DB, Unwin DM, Baidder L, Larsson HCE, Zouhri S, Kaoukaya A (2020) Geology and paleontology of the Upper Cretaceous Kem Kem Group of eastern Morocco. ZooKeys 928: 1-216. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.928.47517

Contacts:

Prof. Paul Sereno
Email: dinosaur@uchicago.edu 

Dr. Nizar Ibrahim
Email: ibrahini@udmercy.edu

“Oldest bamboo” fossil from Eocene Patagonia turns out to be a conifer

A recent examination revealed that Chusquea oxyphylla, a fossilised leafy branch from the early Eocene in Patagonia, which has been widely cited as the oldest bamboo fossil and as evidence for a Gondwanan origin of bamboos is actually a conifer. The results of the finding are published in the open-access journal Phytokeys.

A fossilised leafy branch from the early Eocene in Patagonia described in 1941 is still often cited as the oldest bamboo fossil and the main fossil evidence for a Gondwanan origin of bamboos. However, a recent examination by Dr. Peter Wilf from Pennsylvania State University revealed the real nature of Chusquea oxyphylla. The recent findings, published in the paper in the open-access journal Phytokeys, show that it is actually a conifer.  

The corrected identification is significant because the fossil in question was the only bamboo macrofossil still considered from the ancient southern supercontinent of Gondwana. The oldest microfossil evidence for bamboo in the Northern Hemisphere belongs to the Middle Eocene, while other South American fossils are not older than Pliocene. 

Over the last decades, some authors have doubted whether the Patagonian fossil was really a bamboo or even a grass species at all. But despite its general significance, modern-day re-examinations of the original specimen were never published. Most scientists referring to it had a chance to study only a photograph found in the original publication from 1941 by the famous Argentine botanists Joaquín Frenguelli and Lorenzo Parodi.

In his recent study of the holotype specimen at Museo de La Plata, Argentina, Dr. Peter Wilf revealed that the fossil does not resemble members of the Chusquea genus or any other bamboo.

There is no evidence of bamboo-type nodes, sheaths or ligules. Areas that may resemble any bamboo features consist only of the broken departure points of leaf bases diverging from the twig. The decurrent, extensively clasping leaves are quite unlike the characteristically pseudopetiolate leaves of bamboos, and the heterofacially twisted free-leaf bases do not occur in any bamboo or grass,” wrote Dr. Wilf.

Instead, Wilf linked the holotype to the recently described fossils of the conifer genus Retrophyllum from the same fossil site, the prolific Laguna del Hunco fossil lake-beds in Chubut Province, Argentina. It matches precisely the distichous fossil foliage form of Retrophyllum spiralifolium, which was described based on a large set of data – a suite of 82 specimens collected from both Laguna del Hunco and the early middle Eocene Río Pichileufú site in Río Negro Province. 

Retrophyllum is a genus of six living species of rainforest conifers. Its habitat lies in both the Neotropics and the tropical West Pacific.

The gathered evidence firmly confirms that Chusquea oxyphylla has nothing in common with bamboos. Thus, it requires renaming.  Preserving the priority of the older name, Wilf combined Chusquea oxyphylla and Retrophyllum spiralifolium into Retrophyllum oxyphyllum.

The exclusion of a living New World bamboo genus from the overall floral list for Eocene Patagonia weakens the New World biogeographic signal of the late-Gondwanan vegetation of South America, which already showed much stronger links to living floras of the tropical West Pacific.

“The strongest New World signal remaining in Eocene Patagonia based on well-described macrofossils comes from fossil fruits of Physalis (a genus of flowering plants including tomatillos and ground cherries), which is an entirely American genus,” concludes Dr. Wilf.

Original source:
Wilf P (2020) Eocene “Chusquea” fossil from Patagonia is a conifer, not a bamboo. PhytoKeys 139: 77-89.
https://doi.org/10.3897/phytokeys.139.48717

American scientists discover the first Antarctic ground beetle

Fossilised forewings from two individuals, discovered on the Beardmore Glacier, revealed the first ground beetle known from the southernmost continent. It is also the second beetle for the Antarctic insect fauna with living descendants. The new species, which for now is also the sole representative of a new genus, is to be commonly known as Ball’s Antarctic Tundra Beetle. Scientists Dr Allan Ashworth, North Dakota State University, and Dr Terry Erwin, Smithsonian Institution, published their findings in the open access journal ZooKeys.10535_image-3

The insect fauna in Antarctica is so poor that today it consists of only three species of flightless midges, with one of them having been probably introduced from the subantarctic island of South Georgia. The absence of biodiversity is considered to be a result of lack of moisture, vegetation and low temperatures.

10535_image-2Following their study, the authors conclude that the beetle must have inhabited the sparsely-vegetated sand and gravel banks of a meltwater-fed stream that was once part of an outwash plain at the head of a fjord in the Transantarctic Mountains. Plants associated with the extinct beetle include southern beech, buttercup, moss mats, and cushion plants, all typical for a tundra ecosystem. The species may or may not have been able to fly.

The closest modern relatives to the extinct species live in South America, the Falkland Islands, South Georgia, Tasmania and Australia. Tracking the ancient lineage of this group of beetles, known as the carabid beetle tribe Trechini, confirms that they were once widely distributed in Gondwana, the supercontinent that used to unite what today we recognise as Antarctica, South America, Africa, Madagascar, Australia, the Arabian Peninsula and the Indian Subcontinent. Ball’s Antarctic Tundra Beetle is also an evidence that even after Gondwana broke apart, the tundra ecosystem persevered in Antarctica for millions of years.

“The conflicting signals both in anatomical attributes and biogeography, and in ecological setting as well, leave open the question of relationships, thus giving us no alternative but to flag the species represented by fossil evidence through erection of new genus status, hence drawing attention to it and the need for further paleontological studies in Antarctica,” speak of their discovery the authors.

The new Ball’s Antarctic Tundra Beetle is scientifically identified as Antarctotrechus balli, where the genus name (Antarctotrechus) refers to its being related to the tribe Trechini, and the species name (balli) honours distinct expert of ground beetles Dr. George E. Ball, who celebrated his 90th birthday on 26th September, 2016.

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Original source:

Ashworth AC, Erwin TL (2016) Antarctotrechus balli sp. n. (Carabidae, Trechini): the first ground beetle from Antarctica. ZooKeys 635: 109-122. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.635.10535