A new study recently published in the journal Cretaceous Research announced the discovery of a very special fossil belonging to the Ptiliidae family, also known as the world’s smallest beetles.
This is the first-ever Ptiliidae fossil to hail all the way back from the Mesozoic Era (252 to 66 million years ago) and was found preserved in its very own “time capsule,” notes study co-lead author Shuhei Yamamoto, a beetle expert at the Field Museum in Chicago.
The tiny beetle fossil was discovered in a sample of Burmese amber dating back to the Upper Cretaceous and retrieved from a Myanmar site in Southeast Asia — just like the tick fossil that the Inquisitr reported on last December.
Dated to 99 million years ago, the newfound fossil was identified as a completely new species of beetles and represents their earliest-known member. The new species was given the name Kekveus Jason, after the hero of Greek mythology who sailed the world in search of the Golden Fleece, reports Phys.org.
Just like Jason and the Argonauts, “Jason” the beetle was also a terrific sailor. The only difference is that, instead of taming the ocean waves, this tiny curious beetle sailed the skies with his “paragliding” abilities.
Colloquially known as featherwing beetles, Ptiliidae have one unique physical trait that has inspired their informal name: their wings are adorned with feathery fringes, which “enables them to catch the air and float like dandelion seeds,” notes Phys.org, citing the Field Museum.
The coolest thing about Kekveus Jason — other than its unique mode of transportation, which made this minuscule insect live up to the reputation of its namesake — is that this “paragliding beetle,” as Phys.org refers to it, actually hung around dinosaurs.
“This tiny beetle lived during the Cretaceous Period, it saw actual dinosaurs,” says Yamamoto, who found the amber fossil.
But that’s not all, as this newfound featherwing beetle is the first of its kind in many respects, as described by the study authors in their paper.
“Among Ptiliidae, this is the first nominal extinct genus, the first named representative from Burmese amber, the oldest named fossil, and the first named fossil from the Mesozoic Era.”
According to Phys.org, featherwing beetles are remarkably small — “smaller than the period at the end of this sentence.” The newfound fossil only measures 0.536 millimeters in length. By comparison, the tip of a mechanical pencil looks intimidatingly big, as seen in the photo below.
Because of its microscopic size, Yamamoto initially had a hard time spotting the prehistoric beetle.
“I didn’t have much confidence at first, but after cutting and polishing the amber so I could get a better look, I realized, oh, this is truly an amazing fossil,” the paleo-entomologist confessed.
Looking at the insect through a microscope, Yamamoto was able to see that the ancient featherwing beetle shared a lot of anatomical traits with its modern-day cousins.
This shows that Ptiliidae evolved to be tiny and have fringed wings ever since the Cretaceous and that these are not modern adaptations of the insect family.
What sets Kekveus Jason apart from today’s featherwing beetles, aside from its venerable age, are the three pinstripe-like grooves running up its body, something that modern-day Ptiliidae no longer have.
As Yamamoto explains, the beetle fossil that he stumbled upon is quite rare. The vast majority of Jurassic and Cretaceous fossils rarely include small insects, unless we are lucky enough to find them preserved in amber.
“It’s likely that we’ll find more in the future — Burmese amber is one of the hottest fossils in the world,” says the paleo-entomologist.