It turns out 100 million year-old insects were caring mothers, carrying their young

31 Mar 2015

Dorsal and central view of the Wathondara kotejai, via Wang et al

The world’s earliest known brooding insect mother has been discovered trapped in amber, dated back at least 100 million years to the land of the dinosaurs.

Apparently dying some time during the Mesozoic era, the insect – named Wathondara kotejai after the goddess of earth in Buddhist mythology and the late Polish entomologist Jan Koteja – was discovered in a mine in Burma.

It’s an incredibly stroke of luck that such an insect was found, given that females were wingless and were therefore far less likely to get accidentally buried.

This case, the first of its kind, sees the Wathondara kotejai carrying dozens of eggs in her hatch, and some freshly hatched “nymphs” in a wax-coated sac.

They were carried in the sac until they had grown a suitable supporting body to handle Earth, which is still done by insects today.

“Brood care could have been an important driver for the early radiation of scale insects, which occurred during the end of the Jurassic or earliest Cretaceous period during the Mesozoic era,” says lead author Bo Wang, an associate professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

“Although analysis seemed to suggest that ancient insects evolved brood care, this is the first direct, unequivocal evidence for the fossil record.”

Specimen remains

(A) Habitus in dorsal view. The numbers 1–9 indicate nine marginal wax lobes. (B) Habitus in ventral view. (C) Enlargement of the antenna in (B). (D) Enlargement of the ovisac in (B). Scale bars of (A, B, and D) represent 1 mm; scale bar of (C) represents 0.25 mm. Via Wang et al.

The Mesozoic era spanned around 180 million years, seeing the rise and fall of the dinosaurs as well as the breaking up of Pangaea, the supercontinent that spawned our current continents today.

This discovery, published in eLife, gives greater clues to the earliest diversification of scale insects.

The type specimen is currently housed in the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology (NIGP), Chinese Academy of Sciences and will eventually be deposited in the Lingpoge Amber Museum in Shanghai.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic