"Frozen 99 million years": In ancient amber discovered beetle pollinator

Cristina Cross
August 19, 2018

The findings, according to the study, indicate that these Boganiidae beetles were ancient cycad pollinators, making cycads potentially the first plants that were pollinated by insects.

Cycads, they cicadinae, are among the most ancient gymnosperms, which appeared on the planet before flowering.

Evidence for early pollination is sparse, which is why this new study is so exciting.

Specifically, the team found and analyzed a 99-million-year-old boganiid beetle trapped inside a Burmese amber from Kachin State, Myanmar. If so, that may mean that beetles were pollinating plants more than a hundred million years before butterflies and bees were first pollinating flowers, which may have been around 130 million years ago.

A paleontologist from the University of Bristol and lead author of the new study said that this is the only beetle of the genus buganini from over 22 000 of amber objects, which is currently housed in the Nanjing Institute of Geology and paleontology (which also now contains a new fossil). When a beetle flies to the cones of a male plant, perhaps seeking pollen to eat or for a place to lay its eggs, it brushes against the pollen.

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The age of the finds can surprise anyone.

After cutting, trimming, and polishing the specimen to get a better look under a microscope, Cai's excitement only grew. "This type of pollen only belongs to cycads - and the beetle and pollen matched!"

He also conducted an extensive DNA analysis to explore the beetle's family tree and found the fossilised beetle belonged to a sister group to the Australian Paracucujus, which pollinates the relic cycad Macrozamia riedlei today.

This discovery also has evolutionary implications. The world's oldest existing life is still kind of a mystery and this amber fossil changes a bit of what we know until now. Cai says it's very probable that beetle pollination of cycads evolved before the eventual breakup of the Gondwana supercontinent during the Early Jurassic, some 167 million years ago. The finding, along with the current disjunct distribution of related beetle-herbivore and cycad-host pairs in South Africa and Australia, support an ancient origin of beetle pollination of cycads, the researchers say. In addition, Cai is confident that the same Myanmar deposit could yield larger cycad fossils as well, such as fossilized leaves.

This incredible find is all the more valuable considering that boganiid beetles scarcely turn up in fossil records.

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