Washington, Oct 15 : Scientists have found what they believe to be the world's oldest whole-body fossil impression of a flying insect in the US, dating back to 300 million years.
Richard J. Knecht and Jake Benner from the Tuft University found the fossil in a wooded field behind a strip mall in North Attleboro, Massachusetts.
With chisels and hammers, the team reached the shale and sandstone outcropping. There, they delicately picked away pieces of rock before reaching a section that yielded fossils. Just below the surface, they uncovered a fossilized impression of a flying insect.
It was not just any fossil.
According to Knecht, it is the world's oldest known full-body impression of a primitive flying insect, a 300 million-year-old specimen from the Carboniferous Period.
It is a rare find in the specialized world of ichnology, which is the study of fossilized animal tracks, impressions and trails to investigate behavior.
Knecht said that a preserved full-body impression of a flying insect from this or any previous period has never been discovered.
The fossil, according to Benner, "captures a moment in time over 300 million years ago when a flying insect just happened to land on a damp, muddy surface leaving almost a perfect impression of its body behind."
The North Attleboro fossil will provide researchers with evidence of how it moved once it landed on a surface, as well as its stance, position of its legs and details about its abdomen and thorax.
The impression is about three inches long and is imprinted on the flat side of a rock. The impression does not contain direct evidence of the insect having wings, but Knecht and Benner say evidence suggests that it was a winged insect.
According to Benner, the insect's anatomy and body plan are consistent with those of primitive flying insects.
He also points out that "there are no walking tracks leading up to the body impression, indicating that it came from above."
Michael S. Engel, a leading entomologist at the University of Kansas, who is working with Knecht and Benner to study the insect, said that a preliminary inspection of the anatomy indicates that it may be related to the common mayfly.
"We can tell from the imprint that it has a very squat position when it lands," he said. "Its legs are sprawled and its belly is pressed down. The only group that does that today is the mayfly," he added.
Identifying the insect will also help the researchers to gain knowledge about the ecosystem of that period and what type of animals lived in it.