Preserved in 100-million-year-old amber, this ancient wasp without wings lived at the base of trees while dinosaurs wondered around above it. It is the only known specimen in a newly-created family of Hymenoptera. (Xinhua/Oregon State University) / MB.COM.PH
SAN FRANCISCO — Researchers have identified a parasitic wasp without wings preserved in 100-million-year-old amber from what is now the Hukawng Valley in Myanmar on the continent of Asia and created a new family for the specimen, called Aptenoperissidae.
The well preserved insect, named Aptenoperissus burmanicus, is now extinct. It seems to borrow parts of its anatomy from a range of other insects but belongs to no other family ever identified on Earth. It probably crawled along the ground at the base of trees trying to find other insects and a place to lay its eggs.
“When I first looked at this insect I had no idea what it was,” said George Poinar, Jr., a professor emeritus in the College of Science at Oregon State University, one of the world’s leading experts on plant and animal life forms found preserved in amber and co-author on a study published in the journal Cretaceous Research by researchers from Russia, England and the United States.
The insect, Poinar said, brings to mind the old parable, which now has been adapted among various world religions, about six blind men being asked to touch an elephant and describe what it looked like. One who felt the tail described it as a rope; one who touched the leg said it resembled a pillar; and so on. “You could see it’s tough and robust, and could give a painful sting. We ultimately had to create a new family for it, because it just didn’t fit anywhere else. And when it died out, this created an evolutionary dead end for that family.”
“We had various researchers and reviewers, with different backgrounds, looking at this fossil through their own window of experience, and many of them saw something different,” Poinar was quoted as saying in a news release from the OSU. “If you focused on its strong hind legs you could call it a grasshopper. The antenna looked like an ant, the thick abdomen more like a cockroach. But the face looked mostly like a wasp, and we finally decided it had to be some kind of Hymenoptera.”
Aptenoperissidae is part of the larger Order of Hymenoptera, which includes modern bees and wasps. And within that family, this insect is now the only known specimen. However, the area where the fossil was recovered, the Hukawng Valley, is where arthropods from 252 families have been found, and is one of the richest such deposits in all Cretaceous amber.
The insect is a female, and its long legs may have helped it pull out of cavities into which it had burrowed, seeking pupae of other insects into which to lay its eggs. With that lifestyle, wings would have been a hindrance, the researchers noted in the study. It did have a cleaning mechanism on the tip of its antenna that is characteristic of Hymenoptera.