Research: 450 fossilized millipedes found in amber of 100 million years –



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Since the success of the Jurassic Park film series, it has been widely known that dinosaur-age insects can be found exceptionally well preserved in amber, which is actually fossilized tree resin.

Especially diverse is the animal fauna preserved in Cretaceous amber from Myanmar (Burma). In the last few years, nearly 100 million years of amber has revealed some spectacular discoveries, including dinosaur feathers, a complete dinosaur tail, unknown groups of spiders and several groups of extinct insects.

However, only three species of millipedes, preserved in Burmese amber, were found before the study of Thomas Wesener and his PhD student Leif Moritz at the Alexander Koenig Zoological Research Museum – Leibniz Institute for Animal Biodiversity (ZFMK). His research was published recently in the open access journal Checklist.

Having identified more than 450 millipedes preserved in Burmese amber, scientists have confirmed species representing up to 13 of the 16 major orders that run the earth today. The oldest fossils known for half of these orders were found within the studied amber.

The researchers performed their analysis with the help of micro-computed tomography (micro-CT). This scanning technology uses omnidirectional X-rays to create a 3D image of the sample, which can then be virtually removed from the amber and examined digitally.

The studied amber is most often borrowed from private collections, including the largest European, maintained by Patrick Müller of Käshofen. There are believed to be many additional, scientifically important specimens, perhaps even thousands of them, currently inaccessible in private collections in China.

Over the next few years, newly discovered specimens will be carefully described and compared to existing species in order to identify which morphological changes have occurred over the last 100 million years and to identify speciation events in the millennium of the Tree of Life. As a result, science will eventually seek to solve long-standing mysteries, such as whether local milipede diversity in the Alps of southern Italy or on the island of Madagascar is the result of evolutionary processes that occurred one, ten, or more than 100 million years behind.

According to the scientists, most of the Cretaceous millipedes found in amber do not differ significantly from the species found in Southeast Asia today, which is an indication of the age of existing millipede lineages.

On the other hand, the diversity of the different orders seems to have changed drastically. For example, during the Age of Dinosaurs, the Colobognatha group – millipedes characterized by their unusual elongated heads that evolved to suck liquid foods – used to be very common. In contrast, with more than 12,000 species of millipedes living today, there are only 500 colobognatas.

Another curious finding was the discovery of juveniles of eight newborn paws, which indicated that the animals lived and reproduced in the resin producing trees.

"Even before the arachnids and insects, and far ahead of the first vertebrates, leaf-eating millipedes were the first animals to make their mark on the earth more than 400 million years ago," the scientists explain. "These first millipedes differed a great deal from those who lived today – they would often be much larger and many had very large eyes."

The largest species of the genus Arthropleura, for example, would grow to 2 m (6.5 ft) in length and 50-80 cm (2-3 ft) in width – the largest arthropods ever to crawl on Earth. Why these giants became extinct and these other surviving orders remain unknown, in part because only a handful of generally poorly preserved fossils of the entire Mesozoic era (252-66 million years ago) were recovered. Similarly, while it was long suspected that the 16 modern orders of millipedes were to be very old, a fossil record was lacking to support this assumption.

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