Ancient Meat-Eating Fungus Found Trapped in Amber

December 13, 2007

An ancient flesh-eating fungus that preyed on tiny animals has been found preserved inside a hundred-million-year-old lump of amber, scientists report.

This unlikely fossil predator from the dinosaur era may represent the oldest known carnivorous fungus, according to German researchers.

The amber, from a quarry in southwestern France, also contained worms called nematodes, which the fungus snared in sticky loops before devouring them, according to a team led by Alexander Schmidt of the Berlin Museum of Natural History.

Modern-day carnivorous fungi are known to use constricting rings, adhesive knobs, and similar projections to catch prey, but scientists are unsure when such devices evolved.

The new find suggests these micropredators had already developed complex trapping devices by the early Cretaceous period, which began 145 million years ago, the team reports in the latest issue of the journal Science.

The fungus was found in a single piece of amber kept at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, France.

Amber, a fossilized tree resin, often preserved prehistoric plant material and creatures that were caught up in the oozy substance before it hardened. (See related photo: "Ancient Tree Frog Found Encased in Amber" [February 17, 2007].)

The study specimen harbored various bugs and other organisms that indicated the resin had solidified in soil, where carnivorous fungi live.

Trapping Rings

The fossil fungus has branched projections called hyphae that are equipped with small rings.

These rings are coated with tiny particles that suggested they produced a sticky secretion used to trap several nematodes that were preserved close to them, the study team said.

The diameter of the microscopic worms matched that of the fungus' rings, the team also noted.

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