Beetle saved in amber had helicopter wings

Ancestor of Jacobson beetle was also teeny tiny

beetle preserved in amber

TINY FLIER Feathery wings extending from the posterior of this tiny ancient beetle (in amber), the first of its kind to be discovered, may have helped it drift on the wind millions of years ago.

C. Cai et al/Journal of Paleontology 2016

An amber collector in Germany has spotted the ancient remains of a beetle never before seen in the fossil record.

Two itty-bitty specimens, entombed in amber since the middle Eocene epoch some 54.5 million to 37 million years ago, represent a new species of Jacobson’s beetle, researchers report online March 28 in the Journal of Paleontology. The beetles, Derolathrus groehni, are, like their modern relatives, about as long as the width of a grain of rice.

MicroCT scans and other images revealed narrow bodies, a shiny brown exterior and two wispy featherlike wings protruding from the hindquarters, angled like the blades of a helicopter. The fossils look just like today’s Jacobson’s beetles, says study coauthor Chenyang Cai of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Fringed, eyelashlike wings may have helped the beetles ride the wind, eventually spreading to far-flung regions of the world — from western Russia (a big source of Baltic amber) to distant habitats in Fiji, Sri Lanka and even Alabama, where Jacobson’s beetles have been spotted recently. 

Meghan Rosen is a staff writer who reports on the life sciences for Science News. She earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology with an emphasis in biotechnology from the University of California, Davis, and later graduated from the science communication program at UC Santa Cruz.

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