Milton Sanderson was an entomologist at Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS) who collected 160 pounds of 18- to 20-million-year-old amber from the Dominican Republic in the late 1950s. Though several of the discovered organisms were described in a paper published in Science in 1960, most of the amber samples were put into storage at INHS until they were uncovered by Sam Heads in 2010. Though fully curating the vast collection will take several years, some discoveries have already been made. These descriptions have been published in ZooKeys.
The amber has already revealed various ancient ants, wasps, bees, beetles, spiders, and flies, though one of the most exciting discoveries is a pygmy locust. Some short-horned grasshoppers have phases in which they are relatively solitary and phases when they swarm together in massive groups. During the swarming phase, they are known as locusts.
"Grasshoppers are very rare in amber and this specimen is extraordinarily well-preserved,” Heads said in a press release.
The locust is only 8 millimeters in length and has transitional features between ancient and modern locusts in the sub-family Cladonotinae. While modern locusts do not have wings, the oldest representatives do. The newly-discovered specimen did have wings, but were likely vestigial and could not be used for flight.
The amber sample that contained the locust also contained ants, midges, wasps, fungi, and plant material, which gives clues about spatial relationships and dietary sources when the organisms were alive.
The species has been named Electrotettix attenboroughi as a tribute to naturalist David Attenborough. The genus name is derived from electrum, which is Latin from Greek for “amber,” and tettix, the Greek word for “grasshopper.”
“Sir David has a personal interest in amber, and also he was one of my childhood heroes and still is one of my heroes and so I decided to name the species in his honor -- with his permission of course,” Heads explained.
Heads and his team have a great deal of work ahead of them while they go through the buckets amber samples. Oxidation has made many of the amber cloudy, and the delicate nature of the material requires slow, steady work of polishing up the samples or else the fossils can be easily destroyed. Once the curation process is finished, it will be the largest Dominican amber collection in the world.
"Fossil insects can provide lots of insight into the evolution of specific traits and behaviors, and they also tell us about the history of the time period," Heads said. "They're a tremendous resource for understanding the ancient world, ancient ecosystems and the ancient climate -- better even, perhaps, than dinosaur bones.”
Though Sir David Attenborough has had several other organisms bear his name in tribute, he was so honored to hear about this newly-discovered locust that he agreed to narrate a short film about Heads’s journey to curate Sanderson’s amber collection and describe his namesake locust: