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Preserved for 230 million years in droplets of amber just millimeters long, two newly named species of mites and a fly have set a record. They are the oldest arthropods – invertebrate animals that include insects, arachnids, and crustaceans – ever found in amber, the name typically given to globules of fossilized resin. The results, published by an international team of researchers in theProceedings of the National Academy of Sciencestoday, pave the way for a better evolutionary understanding of the most diverse group of organisms in the world.
“Amber is an extremely valuable tool for paleontologists because it preserves specimens with microscopic fidelity, allowing uniquely accurate estimates of the amount of evolutionary change over millions of years,” said corresponding author David Grimaldi, a curator in the Museum’s Division of Invertebrate Zoology and a world authority on amber and fossil arthropods.
Even though arthropods are more than 400 million years old, until now, the oldest record of the animals in amber only dates to about 130 million years. The newly discovered specimens are about 100 million years older, the first amber arthropods ever found from the Triassic Period.
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Several years ago, Dr. Nikos Solounias, a visiting researcher specializing in the fossil record of animals from Samos discovered lizard bones mixed in with mammalian fossils that Museum paleontologist Barnum Brown had collected from Greece in 1924. Solounias showed the lizard bones to Jack Conrad, a research associate in the Museum’s Division of Paleontology, who recognized them as those of a varanid, a giant lizard typified by the Komodo dragon. In a new paper in PLOS ONE published last week, Conrad and colleagues Ana Balcarel and Carl Mehling have identified the 30-odd bone fragments, which fit in a box 8 inches long, as the remains of the oldest giant lizard ever to walk the Earth. If proportioned like its relatives, the new species—Varanus amnhophilis, or the Samos dragon—was 6 feet long.
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Hominid fossils recently unearthed in Kenya provide evidence that the evolutionary line from Homo habilis—the earliest known species of the genus Homo—to Homo sapiens is not as direct as once believed, according to a feature story published August 8 in The New York Times. The fossils may confirm the simultaneous existence of at least three Homo species in East Africa some 2 million years ago.
The New York Times story about the discovery quotes Ian Tattersall, who studies the human fossil record as curator emeritus in the Museum’s Division of Anthropology. While Tattersall was not involved in the fossils’ discovery, his work similarly seeks to help unravel the mysteries of human evolution.
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A visitor to the Museum’s Spiders Alive! exhibition, which showcases live examples of approximately 20 spider species, might not realize that upstairs, out of public view, is the world’s largest spider collection. The Museum’s research collection contains more than 1 million spiders preserved in ethanol—a growing resource for scientists worldwide.
“Almost every important paper on spider systematics relies on specimens borrowed from our collection,” said Norman Platnick, curator of Spiders Alive! and curator emeritus in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology. “At any given time, we have many thousands of specimens on loan to dozens of researchers all around the globe.”