amber grasshopper
July 31, 2014

New Grasshopper Species Discovered In Amber Collected 50 Years Ago

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

While searching through a massive collection of 20 million-year-old amber originally discovered in the Dominican Republic some five decades ago, researchers from the Illinois Natural History Survey made a surprising discovery: a new species of miniature grasshopper that is no larger than a rose thorn.

According to Rachel Feltman of The Washington Post, the creature was named Electrotettix attenboroughi in honor of famed naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough, and it was housed in one small piece of a 160-pound collection of amber that had been sitting, all but forgotten, in a five-gallon drum.

While modern relatives of the creature have no wings, the newly discovered grasshopper (which belongs to the family Tetrigidae and is also known as a pygmy locust) possesses vestigial wings, Sam Heads, a paleontologist at the Illinois Natural History Survey, told Feltman. While he said he “wouldn’t exactly call it a missing link,” he noted that the creature is “an interesting intermediate between a fully winged ancestor and a wingless descendent.”

Heads and his colleagues believe that Electrotettix attenboroughi is believed to have lived between 18 and 20 million years ago, and consumed a diet comprised primarily of moss, algae and fungi. It was discovered in an amber fragment that also contained wasps, ants, midges, plant remnants and fungi, which reveals much about both the physiological needs of the creature and habitat in which it lived.

While Feltman said that the pygmy locust is the first published discovery from the Illinois Natural History Survey team, Heads is confident that several more are on the way. Likewise, co-author and laboratory technician Jared Thomas noted the amber will take several years to get through, and that there’s no telling what they might discover.

“Grasshoppers are very rare in amber and this specimen is extraordinarily well-preserved,” Heads said in a statement, explaining that the creature’s name was chosen because Attenborough “has a personal interest in amber” and because he was “one of my childhood heroes and still is one of my heroes and so I decided to name the species in his honor – with his permission of course.”

“Fossil insects can provide lots of insight into the evolution of specific traits and behaviors, and they also tell us about the history of the time period,” he added. “They’re a tremendous resource for understanding the ancient world, ancient ecosystems and the ancient climate – better even, perhaps, than dinosaur bones.”

The amber currently being analyzed was originally collected by former INHS entomologist Milton Sanderson, who described several specimens from the collection in a paper in Science in 1960. While the study authors said that Sanderson’s research inspired many researchers to find and study Dominican amber, most of his collection wound up sitting in storage for decades – until Heads and this colleagues found it in 2010.

“The process of screening the amber is slow and painstaking. Much of the amber is clouded with oxidation, and the researchers must carefully cut and polish ‘windows’ in it to get a good look at what’s inside,” the University of Illinois, which is home to the Illinois Natural History Survey, explained.

“In addition to the pygmy locust, Heads and his colleagues have found mating flies, stingless bees, gall midges, Azteca ants, wasps, bark beetles, mites, spiders, plant parts and even a mammal hair,” it added. “When the collection is fully curated, a task that will take many years, it will be the largest unbiased Dominican amber collection in the world.”