August 29, 2007—For this ancient bee, carrying a flower into the afterlife allowed it to deliver a rare gift to today's biologists.
The extinct species of stingless bee was found encased in amber with a well-preserved part of an ancient orchid attached to its back. The amber, dug up in a mine in the Dominican Republic, is 10 million to 15 million years old.
The pollen-bearing package represents the first known fossil of an orchid, researchers say.
Orchids are the most diverse flowering plants on Earth, with more than 20,000 known species (see photos of new orchids found in New Guinea in 2006). But until now the flowers have been absent from the fossil record.
In a paper describing the find in tomorrow's issue of the journal Nature, Santiago R. Ramírez of Harvard University and colleagues note that the fossil flower, called Meliorchis caribea, belongs to a living group of orchids called Goodyerinae.
In addition to shedding new light on the orchid family tree, the find provides "an unprecedented direct fossil observation of a plant-pollinator interaction," the team writes.
For example, when bees visit living members of Goodyerinae, the pollen parts become stuck to their mouths as they take nectar from the lip of the flower. But the fossil pollen was found stuck to the ancient bee's back.
"This indicates that the flower of M. caribea was gullet-shaped," the researchers write. "The anterior part of the bee would have had to enter the flower completely."
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