Nav: Home

Hi-tech scans catch prehistoric mite hitching ride on spider

November 08, 2011

Scientists have produced amazing three-dimensional images of a prehistoric mite as it hitched a ride on the back of a 50 million-year-old spider.

At just 176 micrometres long and barely visible to the naked eye, University of Manchester researchers and colleagues in Berlin believe the mite, trapped inside Baltic amber (fossil tree resin), is the smallest arthropod fossil ever to be scanned using X-ray computed tomography (CT) scanning techniques.

They say their study - published in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters today (Wednesday, 9 November) - also sets a minimum age of almost 50 million years for the evolution among these mites of phoretic, or hitchhiking, behaviour using another animal species.

"CT allowed us to digitally dissect the mite off the spider in order to reveal the important features on the underside of the mite required for identification," said Dr David Penney, one of the study's authors based in the Faculty of Life Sciences. "The specimen, which is extremely rare in the fossil record, is potentially the oldest record of the living family Histiostomatidae.

"Amber is a remarkable repository of ecological associations within the fossil record. In many cases organisms died instantaneously and were preserved with lifelike fidelity, still enacting their behaviour immediately prior to their unexpected demise. We often refer to this as 'frozen behaviour' or palaeoethology and such examples can tell us a great deal about interactions in ecosystems of the past. However, most amber fossils consist of individual insects or several insects together but without unequivocal demonstrable evidence of direct interaction. The remarkable specimen we describe in this paper is the kind of find that occurs only once in say a hundred thousand specimens."

Fellow Manchester biologist Dr Richard Preziosi said: "Phoresy is where one organism uses another animal of a different species for transportation to a new environment. Such behaviour is common in several different groups today. The study of fossils such as the one we described can provide important clues as to how far back in geological time such behaviours evolved. The fact that we now have technology that was unavailable just a few years ago means we can now use a multidisciplinary approach to extract the most information possible from such tiny and awkwardly positioned fossils, which previously would have yielded little or no substantial scientific data."

Co-author Professor Phil Withers, from Manchester's School of Materials, said: "We believe this to be the smallest amber inclusion scanned anywhere to date. With our sub-micron phase contrast system we can obtain fantastic 3D images and compete with synchrotron x-ray systems and are revealing fossils previously inaccessible to imaging. With our nanoCT lab systems, we are now looking to push the boundaries of this technique yet further."

Dr Jason Dunlop, from the Humboldt University, Berlin, added: "As everyone knows, mites are usually very small animals, and even living ones are difficult to work with. Fossil mites are especially rare and the particular group to which this remarkable new amber specimen belongs has only been found a handful of times in the fossil record. Yet thanks to these new techniques, we could identify numerous important features as if we were looking at a modern animal under the scanning electron microscope. Work like this is breaking down the barriers between palaeontology and zoology even further."

-end-

Notes for editors:

Hi-resolution 3D CT images of the mite as well as a photo of the mite pictured on the spider's back are available on request or from: http://db.tt/W4zX0RZs

A hi-resolution video is also available at: http://db.tt/vrHtVryO

The study, entitled, 'A minute fossil phoretic mite recovered by phase contrast X-ray computed tomography,' by Jason A. Dunlop1,*, Stefan Wirth1, David Penney2, Andrew McNeil3, Robert S. Bradley3, Philip J. Withers3, Richard F. Preziosi2, is published in Biology Letters on Wednesday, 9 November 2011. A copy of the paper is available on request.

1Museum für Naturkunde, Leibniz Institute for Research on Evolution and Biodiversity at the Humboldt University Berlin, D-10115 Berlin, Germany

2Faculty of Life Sciences, University of Manchester, Manchester M13 9PF, UK

3Henry Moseley X-ray Imaging Facility, School of Materials, University of Manchester, Manchester M1 7HS, UK

*Corresponding author

doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2011.0923

University of Manchester
Prebiotic evolution: Hairpins help each other out
The evolution of cells and organisms is thought to have been preceded by a phase in which informational molecules like DNA could be replicated selectively.
How to be a winner in the game of evolution
A new study by University of Arizona biologists helps explain why different groups of animals differ dramatically in their number of species, and how this is related to differences in their body forms and ways of life.
The galloping evolution in seahorses
A genome project, comprising six evolutionary biologists from Professor Axel Meyer's research team from Konstanz and researchers from China and Singapore, sequenced and analyzed the genome of the tiger tail seahorse.
Fast evolution affects everyone, everywhere
Rapid evolution of other species happens all around us all the time -- and many of the most extreme examples are associated with human influences.
Landscape evolution and hazards
Landscapes are formed by a combination of uplift and erosion.
New insight into enzyme evolution
How enzymes -- the biological proteins that act as catalysts and help complex reactions occur -- are 'tuned' to work at a particular temperature is described in new research from groups in New Zealand and the UK, including the University of Bristol.
The evolution of Dark-fly
On Nov. 11, 1954, Syuiti Mori turned out the lights on a small group of fruit flies.
A look into the evolution of the eye
A team of researchers, among them a zoologist from the University of Cologne, has succeeded in reconstructing a 160 million year old compound eye of a fossil crustacean found in southeastern France visible.
Is evolution more intelligent than we thought?
Evolution may be more intelligent than we thought, according to a University of Southampton professor.
The evolution of antievolution policies
Organized opposition to the teaching of evolution in public schoolsin the United States began in the 1920s, leading to the famous Scopes Monkey trial.

Best Science Podcasts 2017

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2017. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.

Now Playing: Radiolab

Truth Trolls
Today, a third story of folks relentlessly searching for the truth. But this time, the truth seekers are an unlikely bunch... internet trolls.


Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Rethinking School
For most of modern history, humans have placed smaller humans in institutions called schools. But what parts of this model still work? And what must change? This hour, TED speakers rethink education.TED speakers include teacher Tyler DeWitt, social entrepreneur Sal Khan, international education expert Andreas Schleicher, and educator Linda Cliatt-Wayman.