Scientists have made a rather rare and wonderful discovery on a glacier in Antarctica: the first ever fossilized ground beetle on the southernmost continent.
Not only is it evidence of the first ground beetle ever discovered in Antarctica, it is a new species and the sole representative of a new genus. It has been named Antarctotrechus balli, after George E Ball, an expert on ground beetles. However, it will be more commonly known as the slightly snappier Ball's Antarctic Tundra Beetle.
As you can imagine, insects are rare in Antarctica. In fact, currently, its entire insect fauna alive today consist of just three species of frankly rather boring flightless midges. And one of those is suspected of being an interloper from an island in the Atlantic. This new evidence shows that there were in fact beetles crawling around the icy land mass millions of years ago.
The fossilized forewings of Antarctica's new ground beetle A. balli. Dr. Allan Ashworth
Antarctica’s lack of biodiversity is not that surprising considering the lack of vegetation, moisture, and warmth. Not many things can survive in such low temperatures. But we know that millions of years ago, Antarctica was actually warmer than it is today, with some vegetation that made it slightly more habitable.
Dr Allan Ashworth from North Dakota State University and Dr Terry Erwin from the Smithsonian Institution discovered the fossilized forewings of two individuals on the 200-kilometer-long (124-mile-long) Beardmore Glacier, which is a major outlet glacier of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, near the Transantarctic Mountains. Their study is published in the journal Zookeys.
The researchers think the beetle lived in the early to mid-Miocene, between 14 and 20 million years ago, with plant fossils associated with A. balli indicating it probably inhabited the sparsely vegetated bank of a stream that was part of an outwash plain formed from the run-off of ice melt from the mountains.
The dating of these fossils also shows us that Antarctica probably remained a relatively mild and habitable place for millions of years after it separated from Gondwana, the supercontinent it broke away from that was made up of what is now Antarctica, South America, Africa, Australia, and the Arabian Peninsula.
This exciting find begs the equally exciting question, what else might we find out there under the ice?
The type locality for A. balli is shown by the red star. Image map is a modified MODIS Mosaic of Antarctica from National Snow and Ice Data Center. Dr. Allan Ashworth