16 million-year-old amber specimen reveals unknown animal behaviors

Oct 17, 2012
The image shows a mayfly dating from 16 million-years-ago encased in amber. A springtail be seen resting on its back. Credit: Dr Dave Penney, The University of Manchester

Stunning images, including video footage, from a CT scan of amber have revealed the first evidence of any creature using an adult mayfly for transport.

Researchers at the University of Manchester say this 16 million-year-old hitchhiker most likely demonstrates activity that is taking place today but has never previously been recorded.

Entombed in amber the tiny springtail can be seen resting in a v-shaped depression at the base of one of the mayfly's wings. It appears to have secured itself for transport using its prehensile .

Dr David Penney and colleagues from the Faculty of Life Sciences and the School of Materials used a high resolution CT scanner to take over 3,000 from different angles.

The scientists then created slices, showing the fossil in cross sections. From these slices 3D digital images of the springtail were made so an of its behaviour could be conducted.

Dr Penney says: "The images are really impressive. This pioneering approach to studying fossils has allowed us an insight into the behaviour of one of the world's most prevalent organisms."

Springtails are minute creatures (usually only 1-2mm long) related to true insects. They're found around the world in great numbers, including here in the UK. Gardeners will recognise them as the tiny insects that hop around when soil is disturbed. They readily colonize newly-formed islands but very little is known about how they manage to migrate. One of the reasons is that they are incredibly nervous creatures and have an astonishing ability to leap away from danger using a springing organ (the furca) on the underside of the abdomen, which makes observing them in life very difficult.

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.
This video shows images from the CT scan of the amber and close up images of the sprinigtail on the mayfly's back. Credit: Dr. David Penney, The University of Manchester

Interestingly, when the of the springtail in amber is magnified it's possible to see that the springtail is very slightly detached (by just 50 micrometres) from the mayfly. This suggests it was attempting to spring away as the amber set around it.

Only one previous case of phoresy (the transportation of one organism by another) has been recorded for springtails. This was found in a piece of Baltic amber where five springtails were hooked in a row on the leg of a harvestman arachnid.

It was this discovery in 2010 which prompted Dr Penney to take a closer look at his own specimen. "I had initially thought the creature on the mayfly may have been a tiny nymphal pseudoscorpion, as they are known to use other creatures for transport, and this behaviour is not uncommon to see in amber. I was interested in the fact that this was the first time a creature had been found on an adult mayfly but I didn't truly appreciate the significance of my find until I used the and was able to identify the animal as a springtail."

Phoresy in adult mayflies has never before been recorded. They live for just a short period of time from one hour to a few days depending on the species. The primary function of the adult stage is reproduction and they are unable to feed. This makes it very difficult to study mayflies in their natural habitat and record instances of phoresy.

The amber specimen encasing the mayfly and the springtail provides an accurate snapshot of behaviour that scientists wouldn't otherwise be able to record, highlighting one important application of the fossil record for understanding the present. The near perfect condition of the mayfly demonstrates that it died instantaneously and wasn't moved far from where it rested when the resin ran over it. Equally the position of the springtail resting on the back of the mayfly and the fact that it is in contact with the creature means the pair were unlikely to have been brought together by the resin as it moved down the tree.

The details of Dr Penney's research has been published in the journal, PLOS ONE. More analysis of using CT scans is continuing.

Dr Penney says: "The allows us to build up a 3D image that catches minute details of the animal. We can rotate the image to see parts of the creature that are obscured when looking from the outside in. In effect, we are able to digitally dissect the fossil without causing any damage to it whatsoever. This technology has revolutionised how we study fossils and the findings are incredibly exciting."

Explore further: New hadrosaur noses into spotlight

More information: Penney D, McNeil A, Green DI, Bradley RS, Jepson JE, et al. (2012) Ancient Ephemeroptera–Collembola Symbiosis Fossilized in Amber Predicts Contemporary Phoretic Associations. PLoS ONE 7(10): e47651. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0047651 dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0047651

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User comments : 15

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PhotonX
4.5 / 5 (2) Oct 17, 2012
Research CT scanners must have far greater resolutions than do medical scanners, at least the last time I used one. Used to be we could diagnose an abnormally thick gall bladder wall simply by whether it was visible or not.

Phoresy is a term I didn't know previously. So, can we say that there was a man-horse phoresy because horses distributed cowboys across America?
Egleton
1 / 5 (1) Oct 18, 2012
horsey phoresy? Got to quit while I'm ahead.
kevinrtrs
2 / 5 (11) Oct 18, 2012
Just to display my ignorance:
Do we still have cases today where live insects get trapped in resin?
If so, how fast would the resin have to be traveling and in what quantities to enable the capture that we see in this image?

Does resin normally come off trees in such quantities and at such rates of speed to capture such a highly manoueverable insect like a springtail?

Just asking.

To ask some more - did anyone do a C14 analysis of this amber to see if it contained any?
Pattern_chaser
1 / 5 (5) Oct 18, 2012
I am as doubtful as the rest of you. I even wonder if the springtail and the mayfly were together before the resin hit?
EBENEZR
3 / 5 (2) Oct 18, 2012
Do we still have cases today where live insects get trapped in resin?
If so, how fast would the resin have to be traveling and in what quantities to enable the capture that we see in this image?

Does resin normally come off trees in such quantities and at such rates of speed to capture such a highly manoeuverable insect like a springtail?


http://www.thaind...467.html

It would be perfectly possible that a surface of tacky amber on the water could have led to their demise.
Rohitasch
5 / 5 (2) Oct 18, 2012
Just to display my ignorance:
Do we still have cases today where live insects get trapped in resin?
If so, how fast would the resin have to be traveling and in what quantities to enable the capture that we see in this image?

Does resin normally come off trees in such quantities and at such rates of speed to capture...


Its common in the Indian sub-continent at least. As kids we used to get our clothes all sticky with resin on them and get a firing from our parents because it's tough to get off. It lets off what then seemed like a nice smell when it burns. Its like honey when it drips. Usually insects get stuck when it drips on them while they're sitting and focused on something, like lets say, food, or a testament or two.
The speed at which it hits its victims is usually determined by how far the drop fell, at 9.8 metres per second per second.
barakn
3 / 5 (4) Oct 18, 2012

http://www.thaind...467.html

It would be perfectly possible that a surface of tacky amber on the water could have led to their demise.
Were these aquatic insects, you'd have a point. However, they are not.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (2) Oct 18, 2012
Does resin normally come off trees in such quantities and at such rates of speed to capture such a highly manoeuverable insect like a springtail?

Sap can flow quite freely.
http://www.youtub...LlECSPfM

And we're not talking "normally". We're talking: "The occasional fluke accident of sap and insect being in the same place at the same time in the past few hundred million years".
EBENEZR
2.3 / 5 (3) Oct 18, 2012
Were these aquatic insects, you'd have a point. However, they are not.


Do you know the life cycle of the mayfly?

You're lucky that, by freak accident, I gave you five star for that comment. :|
Pressure2
not rated yet Oct 18, 2012
I am as doubtful as the rest of you. I even wonder if the springtail and the mayfly were together before the resin hit?

Yes I was wondering the same thing. One could have got stuck and the other came for a meal, then it also got stuck. The resin then kept following over both and trapped them.
Pressure2
5 / 5 (1) Oct 18, 2012
Just to display my ignorance:
Do we still have cases today where live insects get trapped in resin?
If so, how fast would the resin have to be traveling and in what quantities to enable the capture that we see in this image?

Does resin normally come off trees in such quantities and at such rates of speed to capture such a highly manoueverable insect like a springtail?

Just asking.

To ask some more - did anyone do a C14 analysis of this amber to see if it contained any?

Resin is sticky and can easily trap most any insect. As for carbon 14 dating, it can only date items less than 50,000 years old.
PhotonX
5 / 5 (2) Oct 18, 2012
Resin is sticky and can easily trap most any insect. As for carbon 14 dating, it can only date items less than 50,000 years old.
I'm pretty sure the point young earth creationist kevintrs was aiming at was "Do we really know it's 16 million years old, or maybe 10,000 years instead. And no, I most definitely NOT endorsing that point of view.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.8 / 5 (16) Oct 19, 2012
It would be perfectly possible that a surface of tacky amber on the water could have led to their demise.
Apparently your German scientists never watched sap flow?
http://www.youtub...a_player

@Julian
Just asking.
You weren't asking you were implying. If you had really wanted to know you would have looked. Or thought. But you didn't. Your heart is hardened like old sap.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.9 / 5 (15) Oct 19, 2012
And we're not talking "normally". We're talking: "The occasional fluke accident of sap and insect being in the same place at the same time in the past few hundred million years".
Insects trapped in amber is quite common. I bought an example at a mineral show awhile back for a few dollars.

Trees are often damaged during windstorms and geophysical events. Trunks snap, limbs break, and stuff gets quickly engulfed. The pair in the article above could have been caught by a series of drops..
gailea
not rated yet Oct 22, 2012
Resin is different than sap. Sap is a thick antibiotic substance that oozes from the tree as a response to injury...it heals, protects and seals. Amber is fossilized resin. Sap is a nourishing liquid that runs freely through the cambium layer of the tree during spring and fall. It is an entirely different substance.