Saturday, 2:15 PM
World's oldest fossil of flying insect discovered in North Attleborough
(Jodi Hilton/Tufts University)
By Colin Nickerson, Globe Correspondent
Scientific sleuthing by a Tufts University geology team in a rock formation behind a strip mall in North Attleborough has yielded the world's oldest whole-body impression of a winged insect, according to Tufts. The discovery was announced today.
The exquisitely-detailed fossil has been identified as the imprint left 310 million years ago by a primitive mayfly that lighted briefly on a muddy outcropping in what was then a steamy Carboniferous Period flood plain.
That fleeting moment in the life of a creature that probably lived no longer than 24 hours was captured for eternity by mud that hardened into rock, until it was discovered last year by Tufts geology student Richard J. Knecht working with Jacob Benner, a paleontologist who specializes in ichnology, the study of prehistoric animal behavior as told by fossilized tracks and other evidence.
"This is an extremely rare fossil record of insect behavior, not just the fossilized body of an insect," Benner said in an interview.
"What's been captured is a moment in time when a flying insect landed with just the perfect amount of pressure in mud possessing just the perfect amount of moisture to capture the imprint -- and leave this story behind," he said.
The North Attleborough fossil should yield critical information not only about the three-inch long insect's anatomy but about how it moved and behaved. For instance, the impression shows the angle of incline at which the insect landed as well as marks left by the locomotion of its legs.
The site, whose exact location remains secret, proved to be extraordinarily rich in fossils, including tracks left by amphibians and reptiles that wandered present-day New England tens of millions of years before the emergence of dinosaurs.
"Identifying the insect is just the first step," Knecht said. "The real goal is to learn as much about its behavior as we can extrapolate. From this, and with the other fossil tracks, we can think about ecosystem of this period and how creatures actually behaved in this environment."
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