Friday, 28 September 2012

Stunning Images Of 300 Million Year Old Insects

The sciences of palaeontology and geology were recognized and founded in the 1800s. The gentleman scientists of Britain led the charge, sampling and mapping the world's geology and collecting fossils. In the south, Richard Owen and the overlooked Mary Anning uncovered the remains of ancient monsters while in the North, Roger Murchison and Archibald Geikie picked their way through the tangled, tortured mess of the North West Highlands. Originally, the sciences themselves were very low tech.

The fossil nymph Anebos phrixos from the Montceau-les-Mines Lagerstätte, 
France. A. Dorsal view, showing wingpads. B. Lateral aspect, of note 
is the orientation of the head and limbs. C. Ventral abdomen demonstrating 
trilobite underside. D. Anterior view, showing head, antennae and possible 
maxillary palps, in addition to leg segmentation. Abbreviations: an = antenna; 
ca = central axis; ce = cerci; e = eye; fe = femur; L1–3 = legs 1–3; lz = 
lateral zone; mp = maxillary palps (?); ms = mesonotum; mt = metanotum; 
pn = pronotum; ta = tarsus; ti = tibia; wp = wing pad. All scale bars equal 5 mm.
Palaeontology relied entirely on the eye of the beholder and their prowess in the field of comparative anatomy. Geologists, meanwhile, crawled over rocks in the heat of the Cotswolds and the ice of Grampians chipping off samples with hammers whilst pouring over maps of regional geology, often to no avail. Yet, with slow and steady refinement, the two fields evolved. We can now analyse rocks at the molecular scale to date and reconstruct their history.

With x-rays and CAT scans, amongst other things, it is possible to reconstruct the remains of long extinct creatures in micrometre perfect detail without even extracting them from the rocks in which they are entombed. This is exactly what a team of researchers from the University of Manchester did, led by Dr Russel Garwood.

Taking two 305 million year old fossil nymphs from the Montceau-les-mines lagerstatten in France, they subjected the specimens to x-ray scans from 3000 different angles. From these, they were able to create 2000 slices of the 3D image which were then put into rendering programs to generate the final images of the ancient insects. It was immediately clear, based on the distinctive spines covering the body, that the specimens were of an unknown species. They were promptly named Anebos phrixos.

Further analysis placed it in the tree of life as an early predecessor of the modern cockroach. 'The roach nymph is much like modern day cockroaches, although it isn't a 'true' cockroach, as it may well predate the split between true cockroaches and their sister group, the mantises,' said Dr Garwood. Many early 'amphibians' were insectivores. Yet this spiny creature, with its unpalatable spines, was a sitting target.

'It is bizarre, as far as we're aware, quite unlike any members of the Polyneoptera alive today.' The fossils of the insects themselves were tiny, far too small to be extracted and analysed under a microscope. The only way we will be able to perform such studies and peer closer at the tree of life is through newer and better technology. While the fossils themselves are important, so is the way we view them.