ENMU scientist classifies prehistoric beetle

Freedom New Mexico: Argen Duncan Eastern New Mexico University Associate Professor of Biology Darren Pollock talks about a beetle specimen in his office. He recently helped identify a just-discovered extinct species of prehistoric beetle, modern-day relatives of which live in Portales.

Argen Duncan

An Eastern New Mexico University scientist has classified an amber-encased prehistoric French beetle that has modern-day relatives in Portales.

A group of scientists in France recently asked Associate Professor of Biology Darren Pollock to look at pictures of a beetle they’d found encased in amber, which is fossilized tree sap. When he did, Pollock identified the insect as a newly discovered extinct species, part of a taxonomic family that still lives.

“It’s significant in that we have a fossil of this family,” Pollock said.

The fossil shows the taxonomic family the beetle belongs to existed 100 million years ago in the Lower Cretaceous Period, the time of the dinosaurs, in Western France.

Most taxonomic families don’t have such a record, Pollock said. Even if the creatures did exist so long ago, insects are most often smashed instead of preserved.

“Every new fossil of an insect is of great importance to improve our general knowledge about the evolution of the different groups,” said Carmen Soriano, the European post-doctoral researcher who contacted Pollock in an e-mail.

Beetles in particular, Soriano continued, have been neglected as fossils because many specialists have believed those fossils don’t have enough detail to classify the specimen. However, scientists were able to view the beetle in question in great detail, despite the amber being opaque, using microtomography, a three-dimensional imaging technique.

“Moreover, this beetle was the first inclusion in amber to be imaged in this way in all the world,” Soriano said.

Soriano said the curator of the beetle collection at the Museum of Natural History of London recommended Pollock to help classify the beetle because of his expertise.

Pollock is a taxonomist, meaning he puts names on biological entities, determines how they’re related and classifies them. Early in his career, he said, he began studying tiny beetles because no one else was and has specialized in them since.

After looking at the pictures of the beetle, Pollock realized the 3.2 millimeter-long insect was from the family Tetratomidae, not Scraptidae as the other scientists had believed. It’s an easy mistake to make, he said.

“It’s not like getting a robin and a blue jay mixed up,” Pollock said.

Although the beetle is from France, Pollock said, North America, including Portales, is home to some of its modern relatives. Because the placement of continents has changed since the Cretaceous Period, that isn’t surprising, he said.

Fast facts

Taxonomic classifications, from broadest to most specific:

• Kingdom

• Phylum

• Class

• Order

• Family

• Genus

• Species

Source: NASA Remote Sensing Tutorial, http://rst.gsfc.nasa.gov/Sect20/A12c.html