In the late 1950s, an entomologist collected an impressive 160 pounds of Dominican amber. Upon his return to Illinois, Milton Sanderson described some of the samples in a paper published in Science in 1960. Then the mother lode of amber went back into buckets -- and into storage at the Illinois Natural History Survey.
Now, some 50 years later, scientists are meticulously digging through and analyzing each piece. Among their finds so far is a specimen of pygmy locust that lived 18 to 20 million years ago. It represents a transitional stage in this insect's evolution since earlier versions of the grasshopper had wings, while modern versions do not. The specimen contained in the amber sported what appear to be vestigial wings -- remnant structures that had already lost their main function.
Heads named the new pygmy locust Electrotettix attenboroughi, the genus name is a combination of electrum (Latin from Greek, meaning "amber") and tettix (Greek, meaning "grasshopper"). The species is named for Sir David Attenborough, a British naturalist and filmmaker. Attenborough was interviewed about the newly named species in an interview by INHS.
"I'm very tickled pink," Attenborough said in a video about the new species' name. "It shows you that that family has been evolving 30 million years ago or wherever you date it, it had wings and today, all the members of the family don't."
The discovery is reported in the journal ZooKeys.
Among the other specimens Heads and lab technician Jared Thomas have found are fungus gnats, mosquitoes, spiders, a few mammal hairs, stingless bees and flowers. And they've only just begun -- so far they've analyzed less than 1 percent of the massive collection. As Thomas said, "We're looking through even the tiniest of pieces. There are tiny insects that could be hidden there, so we don’t want to miss anything."
Although they face a daunting task ahead, with buckets more amber to analyze, the team approaches each new piece of amber with a sense of wonder.
"It's like having a little window into an ancient world. You can look through this lens and see a glimpse of life as it was at that time 20 million years ago," said Heads in the video about their research. "This is what we do every day."
Photo: One piece from a collection of 20-million-year-old amber the Illinois Natural History Survey at Illinois. Credit: Kaitlin and Kevin Southworth