Header Image: A reconstruction of a delta-estuarine environment in northern Spain during the Cretaceous, habitat of the studied amber snakeflies, by William Potter Herrera.
Post by William Potter Herrera, Undergraduate Student at Portsmouth University
About 105 million years ago, in what is now Cantabria, Spain, rich cycad and conifer forests flourished across a landscape of estuaries and weaving deltas, bordering the then subtropical North Atlantic. While marine crocodiles prowled the waterways and theropod dinosaurs stalked the fern clearings, another ferocious, albeit smaller, predator ruled. Snakeflies, or raphidiopterans, are still around today but their diversity and range is a fraction of what it was during the Mesozoic, the period when the dinosaurs reigned.
Left: Map of the world 105 million years ago, with ancient Cantabria highlighted. Author: William Potter Herrera, based on work from “The Planetary Habitability Laboratory” at UPR Arecibo. Right: An extant snakefly from OUMNH’s pinned collections.
Snakeflies get their name from their long ‘necks’ and ovipositors — the latter being a long, thin tube that females use to deposit eggs into the safety of crevices. Snakeflies are voracious predators, using their compact jaws to devour anything smaller than them. Their unusual necks allow them to pursue prey into tight spaces. No Cretaceous bug would have been safe from these monsters that existed in the shadows of the dinosaurs.
Working in the shadow of the Museum’s very own dinosaur during a bursary project last summer, I got a very real experience of paleontological research. Insects might not be the first thing you think of when considering fossils, but the sheer diversity and beauty of preservation these organisms exhibit in the fossil record made them a delight to work on. Nowhere is this more true than in the remarkable amber of northern Spain. Under the supervision of Dr Ricardo Pérez-de la Fuente, I examined, described and mapped out four specimens of amber which contained insects, our focus being on snakeflies. Through careful comparison with previous work, we discovered a new species of Necroraphidia, meaning “snakefly of the dead”. This genus was previously known from a specimen preserving no more than its characteristic wings, but the new specimen is nearly completely preserved, frozen in amber as if time itself stopped.
Left: William Potter Herrera examines a snakefly preserved in amber. Right: Necroraphidia arcuata, a snakefly species from El Soplao amber (Cantabria, Spain). The arrow points to a fragment of burnt plant matter (extracted from Pérez-de la Fuente et al., 2012. Zookeys 204).
The story of how the snakeflies ended up in the amber is as fascinating as the creatures themselves. Amber begins its life as tree resin — a highly sticky, viscous fluid extruded by conifers in response to trauma. Insects and other small arthropods are frequently trapped in it, either being caught by it as it flows downwards, or simply flying into it. Because larger insects are more likely to free themselves there is a bias in the fossil record towards smaller organisms. In northern Spain, however, the amber is remarkably rich in insects and also tiny fragments of burnt plant matter, indications that the insects might have become entombed during, or in the aftermath of, raging wildfires that drove them into a disoriented frenzy.
It was studying these charred fragments that inspired my dissertation on fossil charcoal — and that was one of just many benefits I gained from this bursary. It cannot be overstated how brilliant the opportunity to dedicate six weeks to study in a Museum was; exploring behind the scenes and talking to world experts in every field. The confidence gained from being entrusted to conduct this research so independently at such an early stage of my career will serve me going forward. The work was not easy but the support I received was brilliant. Even now, months later, as we work together to finalise our manuscript, I am inspired by the dedication and belief that Ricardo and the whole staff at the OUMNH have shown in me.