230-Million-Year-Old Fly and Mites Found in Amber

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The oldest known amber-preserved fly and mites have just been discovered in northeastern Italy.

The specimens date to 230 million years ago, a time that interestingly coincides with the appearance of the world's first dinosaurs.

The mites didn't bite into dinosaurs, which was good news for the dinos, perhaps, but bad news for those hoping for some dino DNA.

PHOTOS: Dinosaur Feathers Found in Amber

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The mites represent two new species, named Triasacarus fedelei and Ampezzoa triassica. They are the

oldest fossils in an extremely specialized group called Eriophyoidea that

has about 3,500 living species, all of which feed on plants and sometimes

form abnormal growth called galls. The ancient gall mites are

surprisingly similar to ones seen today.

"You

would think that by going back to the Triassic you'd find a transitional

form of gall mite, but no," said David Grimaldi, a curator in the American Museum of

Natural History’s Division of Invertebrate Zoology, in a press release. "Even 230 million years ago,

all of the distinguishing features of this family were there — a long,

segmented body; only two pairs of legs instead of the usual four found in

mites; unique feather claws, and mouthparts."

PHOTOS: Cretaceous African Life Sealed in Amber

The

ancient mites likely fed on the leaves of the tree that ultimately

preserved them, a conifer in the extinct family Cheirolepidiaceae. The mites are so old that they pre-date the existence of flowering plants.

"We

now know that gall mites are very adaptable," Grimaldi said. "When

flowering plants entered the scene, these mites shifted their feeding

habits, and today, only 3 percent of the species live on conifers. This

shows how gall mites tracked plants in time and evolved with their

hosts."

HOWSTUFFWORKS: Amber

As for the fly, the researchers aren't sure what kind it was. The amber pieces are very small, so when the invertebrates kicked the bucket by drowning in tree resin, they were entombed in mere drops of the stuff.

"Amber

is an extremely valuable tool for paleontologists because it preserves

specimens with microscopic fidelity, allowing uniquely accurate estimates

of the amount of evolutionary change over millions of years," Grimaldi, who is a world authority

on amber and fossil arthropods, said.

He and his colleagues hope to find more Triassic Era amber inclusions.

"There

was a huge change in the flora and fauna in the Triassic because it was

right after one of the most profound mass extinctions in history, at the

end of the Permian," Grimaldi concluded. "It's an important time to study if

you want to know how life evolved."

The find was reported in the latest issue of PNAS.

(Image: American Museum of Natural History)

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