Insects preserved

100 million years ago

Rarities: insects like the one below sucked the nectar from flowerless plants

Universidade de BarcelonaRarities: insects like the one below sucked the nectar from flowerless plantsUniversidade de Barcelona

Insects preserved in amber discovered in a cave known as El Soplao in the north of Spain have shown how plant fertilization occurred in the Cretaceous Period, about 105 million years ago.  Back then, pollinating insects more commonly found today, like bees and butterflies, did not yet exist, and most plants were flowerless gymnosperms (Current Biology, July 20, 2015).  The samples of amber found by researchers from Spain and the United States contained perfectly preserved specimens representing two different species of now-extinct insects.

Both had a long proboscis (a kind of trunk, like an elephant’s) that served to absorb nectar from the reproductive structures of plants while in full flight, similarly to how modern hummingbirds feed.  Both species of insects belong to the family Zhangsolvidae, whose representatives were previously known only from fossils collected in China and Brazil.  One of the insect species carried thousands of grains of pollen from an already extinct gymnosperm, indicating that other long-proboscid insects may have acted as pollinators.  The work is the result of collaboration between experts from Spain – from the Geological and Mining Institute of Spain (IGME), University of Barcelona, and Complutense University of Madrid – and the United States (Universities of Harvard and Cornell, and the American Museum of National History, in New York).  In the Cretaceous, gymnosperms such as pines dominated the terrestrial landscape and the main pollinating agent was the wind – or so it was once thought.