These awesome pictures show a 99 million year old beetle trapped in amber, believed to be the world's earliest insect pollinator of the first flowers.
These primitive evergreens resemble palms and have been around for 300 million years but are now among the most threatened on Earth.
This beetle belonged to the boganiid family, which are exceptionally rare in the fossil record, but are known pollinators of cycads.
A paleontologist from the University of Bristol and lead author of the new study said that this is the only beetle of the genus buganini from over 22 000 of amber objects, which is currently housed in the Nanjing Institute of Geology and paleontology (which also now contains a new fossil).
He recognised its large jaws with bristly cavities might suggest the beetle was a pollinator of cycads. How old? Likely before the breakup of the Gondwana supercontinent during the Early Jurassic, some 167 million years ago, Cai says. He's been looking for them for the last five years. But pollen grains are also rare, as they are very tiny and can only be found using powerful microscopes after careful preparation.
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Added Dr Cai: 'Our discovery indicates a probable ancient origin of beetle pollination of cycads at least in the Early Jurassic, long before angiosperm dominance and the radiation of flowering-plant pollinators later in the Cretaceous'. Its length is only a couple millimetres, the insect has long mandibles, which is traditional for cycads pollinators.
But before angiosperms, animals like the 160-million-year-old Lichnomesopsyche gloriae, an extinct scorpionfly, used its 10-millimeter-long proboscis as a straw to suck out nectar from gymnosperms (flowerless plants), spreading pollen in the process. The challenge, he says, is that older Jurassic beetles are generally found as compression fossils not trapped in amber.
The finding, along with the current disjunct distribution of related beetle-herbivore and cycad-host pairs in South Africa and Australia, support an ancient origin of beetle pollination of cycads, researchers said.
The pollinating relationship between bees and butterflies with flowers is well-documented.
Although the finding of Cretoparacucujus cycadophilus is remarkable in both its level of detail and age, Dr. Cai believes that additional beetles from that era and perhaps even older, have yet to be found. A consulting expert confirmed the pollen came from a cycad plant.