“Souvenirs Entomologiques” Preserved in Stones

By Insect Museum of West China

Would you like to go face-to-face with insects from the Jurassic period to see what the insects that lived together with dinosaurs more than 100 million years ago looked like? Come and visit the Insect Museum of West China. Here, you will find the world’s oldest ant, as well as prehistoric cicadas, bush crickets, mosquitoes, cockroaches, and dung beetles...

As the only national-level insect museum in China, the Museum collection includes insect fossils from 17 orders and hundreds of families, covering almost all insect fossil groups that have been discovered in China.

Fossil of Dung BeetleInsect Museum of West China

Many of these fossils have been exquisitely preserved, to the extent that the delicate wings of the green lacewings, the fine mouthpiece of the scorpion flies, and the patterns on the forewing sheath of the beetles are clearly visible. Even the ants’ bristles are vivid to observe under the microscope, providing a breathtaking view.

Fossil of Wing-spreading Green LacewingInsect Museum of West China

Some of these lifelike insect fossils differ greatly from the appearances of such modern insects, three-tailed mayflies (Ephemeropsis trisetalis) being several times larger than modern mayflies; while some others are almost identical to their descendants, such as the froghoppers and cockroaches that have almost no changes in their patterns and wing veins.

Fossil of CosmoscartaInsect Museum of West China

These precious insect fossils give us the opportunity to meet face-to-face with tiny creatures from the era of the dinosaurs. Behind these fossilized insects there are many hidden prehistoric “Souvenirs Entomologiques”, each as full of mystery as the next...

Fossil of Rove BeetleInsect Museum of West China

The term “fossil” comes from the Latin word "fossilis", meaning “obtained by digging”. They are the remains or imprints of prehistoric organisms that have been turned into rock. 

Fossil of Peanut Bettle, From the collection of: Insect Museum of West China
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From the fossils, we can see the appearance of prehistoric creatures, thereby infer their living conditions and learn about changes in the organisms from prehistoric times to the present. Insects are higher-class terrestrial arthropods. The oldest insects appeared 420 million years ago, and this entire family has thrived ever since.

Fossil of Flower Chafer, From the collection of: Insect Museum of West China
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Today, insects are already the most thriving animals on Earth. There have been countless insects throughout the long history of our planet, and their remains or traces are sometimes buried under the soil. As time passes, organic matter in these insects remains fully decomposed, while the hard parts, such as the carapace, become a part of the rock together with the surrounding sediment. Their original form and structure are retained. Similarly, sometimes the traces of their lives can also be preserved. We refer to these petrified insect remains and imprints collectively as “insect fossils.”

Fossil of Click Beetle, From the collection of: Insect Museum of West China
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Due to poor calcification of insects, the formation of insect fossils is very difficult and extant specimens are rare compared with the fossils of large vertebrates. Most of the fossils in the collection of the Insect Museum of West China were formed between 140 million and 165 million years ago during the Jurassic period. It can be seen from these fossils that in this era where dinosaurs reigned over the Earth, insect species were also developing rapidly. In addition to the cockroaches, dragonflies, and beetles that had already appeared by that time, bees, flies, and scorpion flies also emerged on the planet for the first time.

Fossil of Stink Bug, From the collection of: Insect Museum of West China
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The name “scorpion fly” derives from the fact that the males have enlarged genitals that look similar to the stingers of scorpions. There are 500 species under three genera known in the world, with the majority found in the northern hemisphere, living in forests, canyons, or areas with dense vegetation. They are low in number and not commonly seen, preying on various insects or feeding on different types of mosses.

Fossil of Scorpion FlyInsect Museum of West China

The head of this particular fossil is hook-billed in shape, which is a typical feature of the Mecoptera.

Fossil of Scorpion FlyInsect Museum of West China

Through the study of these insect fossils, we can discover that some insects with seemingly simple structures survived for hundreds of millions of years without any change, and many of them have survived to modern times, still very similar to their modern descendants.

Fossil of MosquitoInsect Museum of West China

Among which, modern cockroaches, stink bugs, and froghoppers are almost exactly the same as their predecessors; even the patterns on the wings have not changed, showing how successfully they had evolved!

Fossil of FroghopperInsect Museum of West China

Cockroaches are one of the most primitive Pterygota, or winged insects, in existence and were earlier settlers on the Earth than dinosaurs. They have an extremely high-level of environmental adaptability and have survived several of the mass extinction events in geological history as well as many man-made disasters.

According to media reports, during World War II, the first insects to appear in the disaster area after the nuclear explosion in Japan were cockroaches. When comparing modern cockroaches to cockroaches of 165 million years ago, there has been almost no change in the morphological characteristics, which proves the perfection of their evolution.

Fossil of CockroachInsect Museum of West China

However, some giant insects, such as the once very prolific three-tailed mayflies, have disappeared, even though there were so many of them at one time that you can see dozens of individual insects crowded on the same fossil.

Fossil of Ephemeropsis trisetalisInsect Museum of West China

This is probably due to the emergence of birds during the Jurassic period. At that time, giant insects were easy targets for birds, so they were gradually eliminated, while small, low-key insects won their survival. Some experts have calculated that modern insects can theoretically grow up to two to three times their normal size, based on the oxygen content of the atmosphere. In reality, however, there are very few giant insects.

Fossil of Ephemeropsis trisetalisInsect Museum of West China

Around 165 million years ago, prehistoric cicadas were found all over the Earth, but strangely, well-preserved fossils of prehistoric cicadas have only been found in China.

- Fore WingInsect Museum of West China

The bodies of cicadas decompose easily, while the wings are relatively easier to preserve. The wings of prehistoric cicadas had a wide span and often had a spotted pattern, whereby they are also called the “butterflies of the Mesozoic period”. Prehistoric cicadas went extinct in the middle of the Cretaceous period, subsequently followed by the end of the dinosaurs.

- Hind WingInsect Museum of West China

Among these exquisite insect fossils, the most precious is the recently collected ant fossil from 165 million years ago. This fossil is very detailed and complete, and is 45 million years older than the former earliest ant fossil of the world discovered by American archaeologists in the Amazon. According to Harvard ant experts, modern ants originated between 140 million and 168 million years ago.Therefore, this fossilized ant is one of the primogenitors of all existing ants in the world and is at the beginning of its evolutionary chain.

This ant fossil was discovered in Ningcheng County, Inner Mongolia, where it was preserved in volcanic tuff. The age of the biome was the late Jurassic period (equivalent to 167-160 million years ago). At that time, a large number of lakes of different sizes were in the area, with volcanoes in the vicinity. Ashes from the volcanic eruption landed in the lakes, forming layers of very fine sediment, which made the preservation of the ant fossil possible and allowed it to be in very fine condition.

Fossil of the Earliest Ant Found in the WorldInsect Museum of West China

Many of the insect fossils in the horsefly (Tabanidae) family possess flower-visiting habits, providing unique material for the study on the origins of the angiosperms. Although fossils of the oldest angiosperms have not yet been found, the appearance of the anthophilous horseflies indicates the time and place of the appearance of angiosperms.

Fossils of the flower-visiting horseflies proved that the angiosperms had already existed in northeastern China in the Late Jurassic-Early Cretaceous period, pushing back the time of origin of the angiosperms by at least 20 million years.

Fossil of HoverflyInsect Museum of West China

Although there are numerous kinds of insects in nature, humans only understand and have information about a small number of them — all the more so when it comes to fossils. We are so lucky to encounter these short yet eternal living beings, to whom an hour is like a day, a day is like a month, a month is like a year, and a year is like a lifetime.

Fossil of MosquitoInsect Museum of West China

After gaining an understanding of the mysteries of their lives, we may be able to explore some of the more profound essences of life from these survival modes that extended over four hundred million years, and thus gain new revelations.

Fossil of Green LacewingInsect Museum of West China

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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