Scientists discover beetle in amber dating back to the Age of Dinosaurs

Ajkaelater merkli

An international group of scientists, including an expert from the Palacký University in Olomouc, have made a unique discovery. While studying amber fossils in Hungary, they found a beetle dating back dozens of millions of years. The results of the study were published in the prestigious journal Scientific Reports.

The fossilized beetle was found on the site of a former lignite mine near the west Hungarian town of Ajka. A fragment of the beetle was embedded in a local form of amber, known as Ajkaite.

One of the members of the research team was Robin Kundrata from the Department of Zoology at the Faculty of Science of Palacký University in Olomouc, who says the discovery is unique for several reasons:

“Not only is it the first beetle ever discovered in an Ajkaite, but it is also the first fossilised beetle found on the territory of today’s Hungary. It is also the first Mesozoic click beetle discovered in mainland Europe.”

The experts only found a tiny, five-millimetre-long fragment of the -beetle. Moreover Ajkaites are not as clear as other types of amber. To reconstruct its appearance and classify the insect, they had to use modern technologies:

“Ajkaitee is mostly cloudy and opaque, so until now, scientists hadn’t studied their content so much. But thanks to modern technologies, we can now scan individual pieces of amber using X-ray computed tomography.

“The machine reconstructs individual sections of the insect’s body, which are then joined together using specialised software. The 3D model can rotate on its axis, which allows us to see every detail of its morphology.”

Based on the final 3D image, they classified the discovery as a beetle from the Elateridae family, or click-beetles. It was given the name Ajkaelater merkli after the place of its discovery, the town of Ajka, and in honour of the former curator of the Hungarian Museum of Natural History, Dr Ottó Merkel.

The authors of the study believe that Ajkaelater merkli was wood-bound in its evolution, just like its likely relatives today.

“Ajkaite is approximately 85 million years old, dating back to the Cretaceous period. Tyrannosaurus Rex also lived in that period, about 60 million years ago, so it is actually younger.

“The area around Ajka was until recently mined for lignite and amber was only a by-product of the mining. There was probably some sort of swampy or lake ecosystem in that area in the Cretaceous period with numerous trees.

“Therefore, we believe that the beetle, just like its modern-day relatives, was wood-bound.”

Mesozoic amber can be found virtually all over the world, but larger quantities of fossils embedded in amber are only found in certain localities, for example, in Lebanon, Myanmar, Spain or France.

Discoveries such as this one can help scientists to better understand the origin, evolution and diversification of different beetle families.