Amber fossil suggests ancient beetle pollinated evergreen cycads

Cycad pollen grains associated with C. cycadophilus Credit NIGPAS

Cycad pollen grains associated with C. cycadophilus Credit NIGPAS

It sets hard and fossilises remains over time.

The creature would have been crawling over plants for nourishment when it was frozen in time during the Cretaceous, while T Rex was roaming the Earth.

The amber has preserved it in astonishing detail and even especially adapted cavities in its jaws are visible.

The beetle, named Cretoparacucujus cycadophilus, is distinct in its form, compared to today's beetles.

The latest research - published this week in the journal Current Biology - suggests boganiid beetles played an important role in enabling cycad diversification.

These primitive evergreens resemble palms and have been around for 300 million years but are now among the most threatened on Earth.

"Boganiid beetles have been ancient pollinators for cycads since the Age of Cycads and Dinosaurs", said Chenyang Cai, an author of the study. Another evidence of existing insectoid pollinators dates back to about 165 million years.

"Our finding indicates a very ancient origin of beetle pollination of cycads at least in the Early Jurassic, long before the [emergence and spread] of flowering plants and their pollinators - such as bees and butterflies - later in the Cretaceous or later."

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Flowering plants are well known for their special relationship to the insects and other animals that serve as their pollinators. It acted like a pocket, where they could collect pollen.

The most impressive feature of Cretoparacucujus is its big head. Little is known about the early evolution of their pollination mode before the rise of angiosperms, or flowering plants, although cycads are well documented from the mid-Mesozoic.

The Early Jurassic is a geological period that spans from 201.3 to 174.1 million years ago.

The fossilized amber was originally found in the town of Tanai, in northern Myanmar, by Diying Huang, Dr. Cai's supervisor.

The beetle carried several clumps of tiny pollen grains. Li analyzed pollen grains from the amber first spotted by Cai, confirming that it had come from a cycad. One of the beetle's close relatives, Australian paracucujus, pollinated an ancient Australian cycad species, Macrozamia riedlei. It is assumed that from that time on, the main partners of the cycads was made by beetles of the family Boganiidae.

He's been looking for them for the last five years.

Though this piece of amber is 99-million-years-old, Dr. Cai and Dr. Engel think it provides a snapshot of a pollination process that may be much older, possibly dating to the Triassic Period.

Their descendants still exist, among them conifers, gingkoes and cycads, which are fern-like plants that live mainly in the tropics. Research has shown that beetles are capable of colour-vision.

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