Researchers have recently identified a pair of copulating froghoppers (Anthoscytina perpetua), fossilized in a rather rare and compromising position. The two love-struck bugs originate from the Middle Jurassic period, with estimates placing the fossil at 165 million years old, found in northeastern China.
A Rare Discovery
Details of the carnal act were published in the journal PLoS One, entitled Forever Love: The Hitherto Earliest Record of Copulating Insects from the Middle Jurassic of China. The fossil highlighted the creatures facing one another, in a belly-to-belly mating orientation, with the male’s reproductive organ (the aedeagus) projecting into the female’s bursa copulatrix, an anatomical feature which has previously been described as a seminal receptacle.
Mating behavior patterns have been studied extensively for existing species of insects. Meanwhile, preservation of mating individuals is a relatively rare phenomenon in intact fossil remains. Researchers have occasionally identified insects attempting to procreate, primarily in amber. It is even rarer to observe such a spectacle in compression fossils, however; these are fossil remains preserved in sedimentary rock, which have, as the name suggests, undergone physical compression.
For example, ants, bees, fireflies, leafhoppers, mosquitoes and planthoppers have all been preserved in amber, on past occasions. Plant leaves are much better preserved than compression fossils, due to their relative flatness. However, more 3-dimensional structures are susceptible to distortion during the process, thereby compromising such samples.
Anthoscytina perpetua, also known as Procercopidae, is a long extinct family that belongs to the superfamily of froghoppers, Cercopoidea Leach. Their name derives from their ability to rapidly spring from plant to plant, navigating their terrain like miniature frogs.
Meanwhile, the juvenile nymph froghoppers are termed spittlebugs, stemming from the customary practice of covering themselves in spittle. The spittle is utilized as a form of defense to protect the creatures from predation and parasites.
Froghopper Mating Practices Remain the Same?
The research, which was conducted by Dong Ren and colleagues, based at Capital Normal University in China, found their fossil sample to be the earliest record of mating insects to date. After analyzing their fossil specimen using a dissecting microscope, the remains were snapped using a Nikon Digital Camera DXM1200C.
Since the samples were compression fossils, the researchers remained unimpeded by amber material and, therefore, were able to perform in-depth exploration of their sexual behaviors. From these images, the team were able to generate a 3-D ecological reconstruction of the insects’ mating ritual, as well as labeled illustrations of each of the different anatomical features involved in the process.
During a recent press statement, Ren explained some of the benefits of his research team’s latest work:
“We found these two very rare copulating froghoppers which provide a glimpse of interesting insect behavior and important data to understand their mating position and genitalia orientation during the Middle Jurassic.”
However, what the researchers found most intriguing was the finding that extant froghoppers of Earth, based upon the latest study endeavors, copulate in much the same way that these fossilized predecessors did.
According to the New York Times, Dr. Chungkun Shih, one of the collaborators of the paper, who works with a fossil insect group at Capital Normal University, stipulates that modern froghoppers have a tendency to copulate either side-by-side or belly-to-belly, differing based upon whether they are positioned on flat terrain or a vertical stem.
Although it seems likely that the preserved froghoppers fornicated in the same manner as current froghoppers, the team cannot be entirely certain – at least, not without similar fossil remains to verify their theory. Essentially, it is difficult to know with absolute certainty whether this is a true depiction of the mating position, or whether the bugs were displaced into an unnatural position as they were fossilized.
By James Fenner