The Hangingfly and the Ginkgo Tree
On first glance, you might not notice the hangingfly in the picture above, and for good reason: new research indicates that this Jurassic-era species was a near-perfect mimic of the leaves of the common gingko tree. According to researchers, its fossilized remains offer a rare glimpse in to how prehistoric bugs and plants co-evolved for mutual benefit. In this case, the hangingfly could advantageously hide from predators and lure prey, while at the same time deterring ginkgo-eating animals from munching on the plant.
So what, you ask? Insects look like plants all the time, and vice versa. Nothing to see here….yet. But now that scientists have better 3D imaging technology at their disposal, like the advanced morphometrics that were used in this study, they can start getting a closer look at microscopic organisms. That carries interesting implications for fossils. Museum cases around the world are full of leaves and branches that were found preserved in rocks and river beds, many of which were collected hundreds of years ago. Could some of them actually be bugs instead? How many other mimetic insect species have we overlooked because we’ve simply mislabeled their remains as those of identical-looking plants? There are enough examples of Mesozoic copycats (katydids, grasshoppers, and cockroaches) to suggest that at least a few more are still out there waiting to be discovered. I’m predicting that sometime in the next couple of years, you’ll hear at least one announcement from a botanical museum that, for whatever coincidental reason, takes a second look at one of its specimens and discovers it to be something else entirely.