Fossil Hunter Stumbles Upon Amazing Fossil Behind Shopping Centre

Fossils come in all shapes, forms and sizes.  Palaeontologists group fossils into various categories, for example there are body fossils and trace fossils.  Body fossils preserve something of the bodily remains of organisms, whereas trace fossils preserve evidence of the activity of animals, such as a fleeting impression made in soft mud by a flying insect from over 300 million years ago.

Some 300 million years ago, what was to become the U.S. state of Massachusetts in what is now the eastern United States, lay close to the equator, part of an enormous land mass that consisted of both what was to become Europe and the Americas (except South America).  The land was dominated by dense swamps, roaming these lush environments were amphibians and the first types of reptiles.  The air was dominated by insects, the only creatures that had evolved to exploit an aerial way of life at the time.  One such insect, an ancestor of today’s mayflies landed on the muddy edge of a body of water, probably a puddle or small pool, it then took off again, but it left the delicate impression of its body and marks in the mud where its thin legs stuck into the soft sediment.

Remarkably, this tiny impression was quickly covered in fine sediment, perhaps it rained and the water level rose, sweeping grains of mud into the imprint left by the insect.  This trace of the fleeting resting place of an insect way back in the Carboniferous Period, was preserved as a fossil and stumbled upon by a keen fossil collector, who was looking for fossil bearing strata at the back of a shopping mall.

This primitive, ancestral mayfly fossil has become the oldest known full body impression of a flying insect, displacing the previous earliest discovered so far by some 30 million years or so.

The Trace Fossil of the Ancient Insect

Picture Credit: Richard Knecht

The trace fossil of the insect can be seen towards the left of the rock slab.

University undergraduate, Richard Knecht was looking for a fossil site, in a swampy area behind a shopping mall three years ago when he literally stumbled upon this amazing trace fossil.  As he emerged from the swamp he came to a rock outcrop of the type he was looking for, and the Harvard University Museum worker states

“I grabbed a loose piece of rock on the outer edge of the outcrop and it was already naturally split as rocks tend to do as they weather.  I opened it like a book and there were both halves [cast and mould] of the specimen.”

A spokesperson for Everything Dinosaur in the UK stated that this was like finding the slab and counter slab of a fossil, but to discovery such a perfectly preserved trace fossil of a flying insect is truly astonishing.  As insects are soft bodied and very light they rarely fossilise.  Trace fossils of these Arthropods are extremely rare, especially anything dating as far back as the Carboniferous.

Commenting on the discovery, Conrad Labandeira, curator of palaeoentomology at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington said:

“Most fossil insects, when you look at them, you don’t really have a lot of surface detail.  This is a very valuable type of preservation.  You can actually view some of the movements of the appendages.  This gives you some idea of the scope of movement of the legs… information that we don’t normally get from body fossils.”

The research team have been studying the fossil bearing site have had their findings to date published in the scientific journal “The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences”.  Insects preserved in amber is one thing, but to have such a superb trace fossil of a primitive mayfly is very exciting.

The oldest evidence of any kind of insects comes from a body fossil dating to the Devonian Period (approximately 418 million years old).  The only other older insect specimen is one of a flightless insect, found by the same research team at the very same location as the mayfly trace fossil.  A number of fascinating fossils have been found so far, including the tracks of a primitive reptile as well as numerous insect and plant fossils.

Richard Knecht, commenting on the fossil discoveries made so far stated:

“We have found a lot of interesting stuff, this [mayfly fossil] is just one of the characters coming out.”

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