Halloween horror story -- tale of the headless dragonfly

October 26, 2010

CORVALLIS, Ore. - In a short, violent battle that could have happened somewhere this afternoon, the lizard made a fast lunge at the dragonfly, bit its head off and turned to run away. Lunch was served.

But the battle didn't happen today, it happened about 100 million years ago, probably with dinosaurs strolling nearby. And the lizard didn't get away, it was trapped in the same oozing, sticky tree sap that also entombed the now-headless dragonfly for perpetuity.

This ancient struggle, preserved in the miracle of amber, was just described by researchers from Oregon State University in Paleodiversity, a professional journal. It announced the discovery of a new sub-family of dragonflies, called "Paleodisparoneurinae," in the oldest specimen of this insect ever found in amber.

More importantly, the study and others like it continue to reveal the similarities of behaviors and ecosystems separated by many millions of years, said George Poinar, a professor emeritus at Oregon State University. Poinar is one of the world's leading experts on life forms found preserved in this semi-precious stone that acts as a natural embalming agent.

"Dragonflies are still eaten by small lizards every day, it's a routine predator/prey interaction," Poinar said. "This shows once again how behaviors of various life forms are retained over vast amounts of time, and continues to give us insights into the ecology of ancient ecosystems."

Dragonflies are one of the world's more colorful, interesting and successful insects, Poinar said, having managed to survive for a very long time. This is the oldest fossil ever found in amber, but other stone fossil specimens of dragonflies date back as much as 300 million years, including some that were huge, with wingspans up to three feet.

Amber is a semi-precious stone that originates as the sap from certain trees. Later fossilized through millions of years of pressure, it's unique for the ability to capture and preserve in near-lifelike form small plant, animal or insect specimens that provide data on ancient ecosystems.

"Dragonflies are now, and probably were then, very quick, evasive, and greedy predators," Poinar said. "They feed on other larvae and insects, mosquitoes, gnats, lots of things. Some are quite beautiful, very popular with insect collectors. And some modern populations like to migrate regionally, going south to mate."

But as the new amber specimen shows, dragonflies are now and for a long time have also been prey, particularly of small lizards. Young and hatchling dinosaurs also probably dined on them, Poinar said.

The quick and merciless battle preserved in this stone took place in the Early Cretaceous somewhere between 97 million to 110 million years ago in the jungles of the Hukawng Valley of Burma, now known as Myanmar. The dragonfly - with one notably missing part - is preserved almost perfectly. Only the foot and tail of a small lizard remains in the stone, presumably as the animal was trying to flee.

"It's unfortunate we don't have the entire specimen of the lizard, because it probably had the dragonfly's head in its mouth," Poinar said. "Both died when they were trapped in the tree sap in the middle of this duel."

Like a never-ending feud, these battles are still going on today. Scientists have documented in some sites near waterfalls in Costa Rica that there are many dragonflies of a certain species. But if lizards are present, there are no dragonflies - it appears they all get eaten.

Sometimes things change. Sometimes they don't.
-end-
Editor's Note: Digital images are available to illustrate this story.
Headless dragonfly: http://www.flickr.com/photos/oregonstateuniversity/5118308334/
Lizard's foot: http://www.flickr.com/photos/oregonstateuniversity/5118322480/

Oregon State University

Related Amber Articles from Brightsurf:

Palaeontologists describe a unique preservation process analyzing remains found in amber
A team of palaeontologists described two amber pieces found in sites in Teruel (Spain) with remains from vertebrates corresponding to the Early Cretaceous.

Salute the venerable ensign wasp, killing cockroaches for 25 million years
An Oregon State University study has identified four new species of parasitic, cockroach-killing ensign wasps that became encased in tree resin 25 million years ago and were preserved as the resin fossilized into amber.

World's oldest animal sperm found in tiny crustaceans trapped in Myanmar amber
An international collaboration between researchers at Queen Mary University of London and the Chinese Academy of Science in Nanjing has led to the discovery of world's oldest animal sperm inside a tiny crustacean trapped in amber around 100 million years ago in Myanmar.

100-million-year-old amber reveals sexual intercourse of ostracods
Dr. WANG He and Prof. WANG Bo, from the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (NIGPAS), and their collaborators presented exceptionally well-preserved ostracods with soft parts (appendages and reproductive organs) from mid-Cretaceous Myanmar amber (~100 million years old), which revealed sexual intercourse of ostracods.

Wide awake: Light pollution keeps magpies and pigeons tossing and turning
La Trobe University and University of Melbourne researchers find light comparable in intensity to street lighting can disrupt the length, structure and intensity of sleep in magpies and pigeons

Amber fossils unlock true color of 99-million-year-old insects
A research team from the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (NIGPAS) has now unlocked the secrets of true coloration in the 99-million-year-old insects.

Paleontology: Fossil trove sheds light on ancient antipodean ecology
The oldest known animals and plants preserved in amber from Southern Gondwana are reported in Scientific Reports this week.

Beetles changed their diet during the Cretaceous period
Like a snapshot, amber preserves bygone worlds. An international team of paleontologists from the University of Bonn has now described four new beetle species in fossilized tree resin from Myanmar, which belong to the Kateretidae family.

Rare lizard fossil preserved in amber
The tiny forefoot of a lizard of the genus Anolis was trapped in amber about 15 to 20 million years ago.

By gum! Scientists find new 110-million-year-old treasure
A remarkable new treasure has been found by scientists from the University of Portsmouth -- the first fossil plant gum on record.

Read More: Amber News and Amber Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.