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Nature - Palaeontology An insect to fill the gap

Nature - Palaeontology An insect to fill the gap

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Nature - Palaeontology An insect to fill the gap
Nature - Palaeontology An insect to fill the gap

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Published by: richardus2099 on Dec 20, 2012
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PALAEONTOLOGY 
An insect to fill the gap
A coml insc fossil fom h Dvonian iod has long bn sough. Th finding of a candida may imovou achy undsanding of whn wingd inscs volvd.See Letter p.82
WILLIAM A. SHEAR
I
nsects are, in terms of species number,
the most successful group of animals
ever to have lived. But their evolution-
ary origins are a source of controversy,
and will continue to be so until the fossilrecord finally yields up unequivocal evi-
dence of insect beginnings. On page 82 of 
this issue, Garrouste
et al.
1
claim to have
found precisely this. Although it canhardly be described as well preserved,
the fossil shows a six-legged thorax, long
single-branched antennae, triangular
 jaws and a 10-segmented abdomen (seeFig. 2 of the paper
1
). Insects are the only 
known arthropods (joint-legged inver-tebrate animals) with this anatomicalcombination, allowing the authors to
make a strong case for the fossil’s insectan
identity.
The 8-millimetre-long fossil, which
the authors named
Strudiella devonica
,
was found in a small rock slab excavated
at a quarry in Belgium.
Strudiella
is
dated to approximately 370 million years
old, which places it late in the Devo-nian period (Fig. 1). This was the timewhen terrestrial ecosystems were first
assembling from their aquatic progeni-
tors
2
— the first forests were established
and the earliest four-legged vertebrates
were crawling out from freshwater pools
onto land. So far, only suggestive traces
of insects have been found in rocks of this age. The famous Rhynie chert, asedimentary deposit in Scotland that
is about 402 million years old, containsfossils of collembolans
3
, a class of animal that
contains today’s ubiquitous springtails, and
which is regarded as closely related to insects.
The Rhynie chert has also yielded a pair of  jaw fossils called
Rhyniognatha
, which may 
be from an advanced, winged insect
4
. In New 
York state, some fossilized scraps of character-istic cuticle and the framework of a single com-pound eye, perhaps from a primitive, wingless
insect, have been found in 385-million-yearold rocks
5
. But these fragments more or lesscomplete the picture of all that is known of 
insects at this crucial time in Earths history.
There have also been some false alarms.
For example, the fossilized head of a wingless
insect found
6,7
in Canadian strata somewhat
older than the New York deposits is almost cer-
tainly a contaminant — a much more recentor contemporary insect lodged in a crack in
the rocks. And
Leverhulmia mariae,
also fromScottish chert near Rhynie, could have been an
insect, a close relative, or neither — it seems
to have too many legs to be easily classified
8
.
So although its age makes it too late to be
an insect ancestor, or even the earliest insect,
Strudiella
is nonetheless of great potentialsignificance as the oldest complete insect
fossil yet found. This is the first and primary 
point speaking to its importance.
We can perceive only what the fossil
record permits us to perceive. From ourcurrent viewpoint, the diversification of insects and of our own terrestrial verte-
brate ancestors seems to have occurred
in two evolutionary bursts
9
. Between425 million and 385 million yearsago, both groups probably originatedand underwent an initial evolution-
ary radiation as they began occupying
the newly available subaerial realm.
There then follows a long period, called
Romer’s gap (360 million to 345 mil-lion years ago) for the vertebrates andthe longer Hexapoda gap for insects
(385 million to 325 million years ago),
during which few, if any, fossils of these
groups can be found (Fig. 1). Then,
with apparent suddenness, an explosive
appearance of many new forms takesplace in the second round of diversi-fication. For the insects, large wingedspecies of the major groups (mayflies,proto-dragonflies and others, includ-ing extinct types) show up, seemingly 
 
without precursors. The insects wereoff and running on their way to world
domination.
These gaps, and the two bouts of evo-
lution that they create, may or may notbe real. There is evidence that a periodof low atmospheric oxygen concentra-
tion coincided with the gap period, and
this could have suppressed the rate of appearance of novel anatomy 
10
. But a
more parsimonious explanation is sim-
ply that we have not yet found the right
rock formations to reveal fossils that would fill
in the gaps. For example, most of the exposed
strata for this period in Europe and North
America are of marine, not land, origin.
This brings us to the second reason forthe importance of 
Strudiella
— it is dated toa time smack in the middle of the Hexapodagap (Fig. 1). According to Garrouste
et al.,
 this significantly narrows the gap. And if, as
the authors suggest, the fossil came from the
young stage of an animal that would have had
wings as an adult, their finding would meanthat winged insects originated much earlierthan fossils have heretofore told us, and that
Figure 1 | Winged beginnings.
The fossil record provides ampleexamples of winged insects from around 325 million years ago,such as the order Palaeodictyoptera from the Carboniferousperiod. However, there is little evidence of insect evolution beforethis time; only a handful of fossils, including 402-million-year-old
Rhyniella praecursor 
, which appears similar to extant collembolanarthropods, have been found. But none of these few examplescomes from the period between 385 million and 325 million yearsago, which is referred to as the Hexapoda gap (striped region)because of the lack of insect evidence. Now, however, Garrouste
et al.
1
report the finding of 
Strudiella devonica
, a fossil dated to370 million years ago that shows multiple anatomical features thatare characteristic of insects.
Rhyniella praecursor 
Devonian
Hexapodagap
   T   i  m  e   (  m   i   l   l   i  o  n  s  o   f  y  e  a  r  s  a  g  o   )
400
375
325350300425
Carboniferous
Strudiella devonica
Palaeodictyoptera
34 | NATURE | VOL 488 | 2 AUGUST 2012
NEWS & VIEWS
© 2012 Macmillan Publishers Limited. All rights reserved

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