Scientists discover first ever record of insect pollination from 100 million years ago

May 14, 2012
This is a synchrotron tomography image of the specimen of Gymnospollisthrips minor studied at the ESRF. The pollen grains are highlighted in yellow. Credit: ESRF

Amber from Cretaceous deposits (110-105 my) in Northern Spain has revealed the first ever record of insect pollination. Scientists have discovered in two pieces of amber several specimens of tiny insects covered with pollen grains, revealing the first record of pollen transport and social behavior in this group of animals. The results are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) dated 14-18 May 2012.

The international team of scientists comprises: Enrique Peñalver and Eduardo Barrón from the Instituto Geológico y Minero de España in Madrid; Xavier Delclòs from the University of Barcelona; Andre and Patricia Nel from the Muséum national d'histoire naturelle in Paris; Conrad Labandeira from the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC; and Carmen Soriano and Paul Tafforeau from the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble, France. The amber samples were from the collection of the Museo de Ciencias Naturales de Álava (Spain).

Today, more than 80% of plant species rely on insects to transport from male to female flower parts. Pollination is best known in flowering plants but also exists in so-called gymnosperms, seed-producing plants like conifers. Although the most popular group of pollinator insects are bees and butterflies, a myriad of lesser-known species of flies, beetles or thrips have co-evolved with plants, transporting pollen and in return for this effort being rewarded with food.

Where bees are, there will be honey (even pre-historic)
This is a photo taken under a microscope of Gymnosperm pollen, attached to the abdomen and wing of a Gymnopollisthrips fossilized insect inclusion in the Alava amber. Credit: Enrique Peñalver/IGME

During the last 20 years, amber from the Lower Cretaceous (110-105 my) found in the Basque country in Northern Spain has revealed many new plant and animal species, mainly insects. Here, the amber featured inclusions of thysanopterans, so-called thrips, a group of minute insects of less than 2 mm in length that feed on pollen and other plant tissues. They are efficient pollinators for several species of flowering plants.

Two amber pieces revealed six fossilised of female thrips with hundreds of pollen grains attached to their bodies. These insects exhibit highly specialized hairs with a ringed structure to increase their ability to collect pollen grains, very similar to the ones of well known pollinators like domestic bees. The scientists describe these six specimens in a new genus (Gymnopollisthrips) comprising two new species, G. minor and G. major.

The most representative specimen was also studied with synchrotron X-ray tomography at the ESRF to reveal in three dimensions and at very high resolution the distribution over the insect's body.

The pollen grains are very small and exhibit the adherent features needed so that insects can transport them. The scientists conclude that this pollen is from a kind of cycad or ginkgo tree, a kind of living fossil of which only a few species are known to science. Ginkgos trees are either male or female, and male trees produce small pollen cones whereas female trees bear ovules at the end of stalks which develop into seeds after pollination.

For which evolutionary reason did these tiny insects, 100 million years ago, collect and transport Gingko pollen? Their ringed hairs cannot have grown due to an evolutionary selection benefitting the trees. The benefit for the thrips can only be explained by the possibility to feed their larvae with pollen. This suggests that this species formed colonies with larvae living in the ovules of some kind of gingko for shelter and protection, and female insects transporting pollen from the male Gingko cones to the female ovules to feed the larvae and at the same time pollinate the trees.

Only amber can preserve behavioural features like pollination in such rich detail over millions of years. 100 million years ago, flowering plants started to diversify enormously, eventually replacing conifers as the dominant species. "This is the oldest direct evidence for pollination, and the only one from the age of the dinosaurs. The co-evolution of flowering plants and insects, thanks to pollination, is a great evolutionary success story. It began about 100 million years ago, when this piece of amber fossil was produced by resin dropping from a tree, which today is the oldest fossil record of pollinating . Thrips might indeed turn out to be one of the first pollinator groups in geological history, long before evolution turned some of them into flower pollinators", concludes Carmen Soriano, who led the investigation of the amber pieces with X-ray tomography at the ESRF.

Explore further: Running robots of future may learn from world's best two-legged runners—birds

Related Stories

Secret life of bees now a little less secret

Feb 01, 2011

Many plants produce toxic chemicals to protect themselves against plant-eating animals, and many flowering plants have evolved flower structures that prevent pollinators such as bees from taking too much pollen. ...

New research explains orchids' sexual trickery

Dec 17, 2009

A new study reveals the reason why orchids use sexual trickery to lure insect pollinators. The study, published in the January issue of The American Naturalist, finds that sexual deception in orchids leads to a more effici ...

Pollen also appears outside flowering season

Mar 18, 2011

"There is of course a very close relationship between the moment at which pollen is released by plants and the data gathered by the traps used to measure these grains, but this is not always the case", Rafael Tormo, a botanist ...

When flowers turn up the heat

Jul 28, 2010

Could a "hot" flower attract pollinators by serving as a reward in a plant-pollinator mutualism? Many flowering plants produce nectar and pollen as rewards in exchange for pollination services by insects and other animals. ...

Recommended for you

New research reveals fish are smarter than we thought

9 minutes ago

(Phys.org) —A new study from researchers in our Department of Psychology with colleagues at Queen Mary University of London has reported the first evidence that fish are able to process multiple objects ...

User comments : 9

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

foofighter
3.7 / 5 (3) May 14, 2012
I don't accept any dating method that isn't consistent with the inconsistent genealogies of Matthew and Luke. BIBLE RULEZ!!!! SCIENCE DROOLZ!!! HAR HAR HAR
PhotonX
not rated yet May 14, 2012
I love the accompanying Google ad: Ortho® Bug-B-Gon MAX® - One Application Keeps Bugs Out For Up To Three Months!
.
That's got nothing on Amber-B-Gone, works up to 100 Million years!
davarm
5 / 5 (3) May 15, 2012
Congratulations to Carmen and her group who will have worked extra hard on this amber dream, seeing as it covers early insect evolution and the gingko gymnosperm pollen. Two very difficult areas where you have to tread carefully.Let's have a lot more support for people who dedicate their time to unresolved questions about our earth and waste less on the dross
kevinrtrs
1.4 / 5 (9) May 15, 2012
Questions:
1. Did they perform a C-14 dating test on these specimens or the amber?
2. How can ANY organic material last for 100 million years? How do they KNOW that it lasted 100 million years? Was someone there to record the first encasement and left a record for posterity with a nicely dated document? Basically, just how did they date the specimens and what assumptions are built into that dating method?
3. How did plants "evolve" from a single celled organism? This tiny little conundrum hasn't been answered yet. Furthermore, right now there's great controversy over ANY evolution of plants. It would appear that plants defy any evolutionary classification system - for the simple reason that they never did "evolve".
4. How did plants live independently of the insects? Or how did the insect live independently of the plants BEFORE they "co-evolved". If there wasn't any such independence then we have a miraculous simultaneous co-existence.
MarkyMark
5 / 5 (1) May 15, 2012
1.By applying some logic both! I know i would.

2. Yea you got it right there as God left the records there in the Carbon.

3. Lol try reading some real books not just religiouse propaganda spooned out of the Tea Party Cult.

4.Read the above answer labeled 3. Assuming you can bear the strain!!!
rsamways
5 / 5 (4) May 15, 2012
@kevinrtrs - Answers (in Science).

1. Why would anyone use radiocarbon dating on a sample so old? C-14 is good up to about 60,000 yrs. After that, C-14, being an unstable isotope, radioactively decays beyond a level to be useful in dating techniques. Thankfully, geology and paleo-biology can be used together to solve many dating problems. I encourage you to look them up.

2. See answer 1 and read vigorously. However, many people require several years of education to fully grasp the wealth of information humans have accumulated over centuries of intense study from many different scientific disciplines.

3. Actually, the conundrum you speak of is very well understood. The simplest plants are single-celled green algae. Much like the animal kingdom, these tiny lifeforms have chromosomes, which is an organized structure of DNA. DNA is the basic building block of life. I encourage you to read up on it.

4. No miracles involved. Ecosystems change every moment of every day. Read!!
Anorion
5 / 5 (5) May 15, 2012
guys guys stop answering kevins pseudo questions, he don't care about your or anyone's else answers and no he don't care to do some research or read about it or learn anything. he is on phys org , since many years, all those questions were answered to him many many times by different people who also provided him topics to research and read about , but all that proved to be useless, cause he again ask same old questions that were answered so many times. and even if you answered him now, on next article about an topic like this, he will ask again those same questions, witch will be answered again, and then on next article , all will be same again.... there is no point to try to teach anything to him or give him any answers , cause he think that science is EVIL , devils work , and he will never learn anything
ldhdc65
not rated yet May 15, 2012
a
MarkyMark
5 / 5 (1) May 17, 2012
guys guys stop answering kevins pseudo questions, he don't care about your or anyone's else answers and no he don't care to do some research or read about it or learn anything. he is on phys org , since many years, all those questions were answered to him many many times by different people who also provided him topics to research and read about , but all that proved to be useless, cause he again ask same old questions that were answered so many times. and even if you answered him now, on next article about an topic like this, he will ask again those same questions, witch will be answered again, and then on next article , all will be same again.... there is no point to try to teach anything to him or give him any answers , cause he think that science is EVIL , devils work , and he will never learn anything

How Dare you dissagree with ower rights to free Speach and 'Fun' on the Winternets !)

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.