The recent discovery of an ancient cricket in hardened amber in a study through the Prairie Research Institute at the University of Illinois has spawned memories of the 1993 movie Jurassic Park. While there will not be any extraction of DNA to create an amusement park full of dinosaurs, the discovery of the cricket was a surprise. The discovery was made by Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS) paleontologist Sam Heads and his co-author Yinan Wang along with lab technician Jared Thomas.
The study revealed this specific cricket was a previously undiscovered species. This species hopped the earth some 20 million years ago and is a newly discovered chapter in the evolutionary life of locus subfamily called Cladonotinae. This new species named Electrotettix attenboroughi, in recognition of famed television personality and naturalist Sir David Attenborough, is a pygmy grasshopper.
Another surprise in the discover is how the amber and grasshopper were found. The amber that contained this new species was discovered in the Dominican Republic over 50 years ago. The amber containing the locus had been sitting at the bottom of a bucket with other pieces of amber in lab storage.
The memories of the brother of the cricket’s namesake, Sir Richard Attenborough, walking around with a walking stick containing a piece of amber with the mosquito that spawned the character’s dream of Jurassic Park have now been renewed through science rather than the upcoming sequel, Jurassic World. Attenborough’s character, John Hammond, evidently did not need to spend all the money mining the amber to find the dino DNA. He could have just dug through lab storage buckets for all the insects he needed.
However, this is an actual scientific discovery, and this new discovery has yielded some interesting details. While most locust of today do not fly, and many today do not have wings, almost all of their ancestors had wings and flew. This new species falls into the middle of the evolution of locust, having small wings that likely would not allow for flight.
This new grasshopper is small. The newly discovered specimen is approximately the size of a rose thorn. This specific discovery was in a fragment of amber that contained a number of other insects and fungi.
It is a painstakingly slow process to screen amber. To see what is inside each fragment, researchers take pieces that are clouded by oxidation, cut and then polish a small windows into the samples of amber. Besides the new species of locus, researchers have also found stingless bees, Azteca ants, mating flies, gall midges, bark beetles, wasps, spiders, various parts of different plants and a hair from some species of mammal.
While fond memories of the movie Jurassic Park may have spawned from the cricket found in amber collected a half century ago are fun, there may be more discoveries yet to come. The researchers that discovered the locust in the one fragment of amber still have near 160 pounds to go through that was collected in the 1950’s. After the amber was collected, a small portion of the samples was used in a 1960 study by a former INHS entomologist, Milton Sanderson. In the study Sanderson laid out descriptions of some of the specimens collected, but the rest of the amber went into storage along with the cricket until a group of scientists sought out the remaining samples left in storage.
By Carl Auer