Flirtatious 100-Million-Year-Old Damselflies Found Frozen in Amber

The poor damsel fly was trapped while getting his groove on over 100m years ago CREDIT: DARAN ZHENG

It was all going so well. 100-million-years ago a male damselfly spotted a potential mate and set about attempting to woo her with an intricate courtship dance.

Waving his impressive pod-like lower limbs in the air and beating his wings furiously, the tiny insect pulled out all the stops to signal his interest to his intended.

But, the course of true love never did run smooth, and this unfortunate damselfly, rather than enjoying the fruits of his labour, found himself encased in sticky tree sap, which later turned into amber.

It is the first time the mating dance of ancient insects has been discovered fossilised in amber.

The frozen-in-time scene which dates from the Mid-cretaceous when dinosaurs ruled the Earth, was reported by researchers from the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology.

"Courtship behaviours, frequent among modern insects, have left extremely rare fossil traces. None are known previously for fossil (primitive winged insects)," said lead author Dr Daran Zheng.

"Fossil traces of such behaviours are better known among the vertebrates, such as the antlers of the Pleistocene giant deer Megaloceros giganteus.

"Here we describe spectacular extremely expanded, pod-like tibiae in males of a platycnemidid damselfly from mid-Cretaceous Burmese amber.

"Such structures in modern damselflies, help to fend off other suitors as well as attract mating females, increasing the chances of successful mating."

The new species, an ancestor of modern damselflies, was named Yijenplatycnemis huangi after Huang Yijen from Taiwan, who donated the amber to researchers after finding it in Myanmar.

Y. huangi was found to have spectacular extremely expanded, pod-like lower legs, or tibiae, which were used to fend off other suitors as well as attract mating females, increasing the chances of successful mating.

Today damselflies mate in the same way,  although there lower legs are now so developed as in the past.  During courtship, male dancing jewel damselfly (Platycypha caligata) waves the white anterior surface of all six enlarged lower legs at the female.

The ancient species was also found to have an eye-shaped spot in the middle of its hind leg, like the wing spots of butterflies.

Eyespots are used to make a conspicuous  display to intimidate vertebrate predators or protect the body by deflecting an attack to the wings.

Researchers Dr Zheng Daran and Professor Wang Bo believe the eyespots may have been used to also attract females, in the same way as the eyes on peacock feathers.

The research was published in the journal Scientific Reports.
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