Two newfound, 230-million-year-old mites (pictured), along with an extinct insect related to gnats and mosquitoes, are the oldest animals yet found in amber—by more than a hundred million years, a new study says. (Related: "Ancient Praying Mantis Found in Amber.")
Found among 70,000 droplets of amber from northeastern Italy, the arthropods—invertebrates with exoskeletons and segmented bodies—may look like "alien creatures," in the words of study leader David Grimaldi. But, he added, they're remarkably similar to modern gall mites.
One significant difference is that today's gall mites parasitize flowering plants, while the new species lived before flowering plants evolved—hinting at the resilience of the basic mite "design."
"Despite all that evolutionary change—this is a hundred million years before flowering plants; there was no Atlantic Ocean; dinosaurs hadn't evolved—gall mites don't seem to have changed very much," said Grimaldi, a biologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
As for these specific mites, they were probably the architects of their own demise, he said. The resin that ultimately fossilized into amber could have been secreted by a tree after the mites had begun feeding on it—leading Harvard entomologist Brian Farrell to comment, "Live by the sword, die by the sword."
(Also see "Toxic Frogs Get Their Poison From Mites.")
The amber-bugs study appears this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.