A 100-million-year-old wasp looks as though it was made by stitching together parts of many different animals, just as was once thought to be the case for the platypus.
However, Aptenoperissus burmanicus was a real creature, albeit the only known representative of its family. We have only a single specimen, captured in amber, but it is so well preserved we know quite a bit about its anatomy, although less about its ancestry.
“When I first looked at this insect I had no idea what it was,” said Emeritus Professor George Poinar of Oregon State University in a statement. “You could see it’s tough and robust, and could give a painful sting. We ultimately had to create a new family for it, because it just didn’t fit anywhere else. And when it died out, this created an evolutionary dead end for that family.”
The sole A. burmanicus fossil was found in the Hukawang Valley, north Myanmar, where rich deposits of Cretaceous amber have provided us with much of what we know about arthropod species of the era 145 million to 65 million years ago, including the oldest known species of bee. When the specimen was discovered, no one really knew what to make of it.
“We had various researchers and reviewers, with different backgrounds, looking at this fossil through their own window of experience, and many of them saw something different,” Poinar said. In a situation Poinar likens to the parable of the blind men and the elephant, those used to working on grasshoppers noticed the resemblance to their specialty in the powerful hind legs. Ant experts recognized the antennae, while the abdomen reminded everyone of a cockroach.
Based in part on the face, Poinar and his colleagues decided that A. burmanicus was a wingless wasp. In Cretaceous Research, they describe the new species, identifying it as so different from anything else known that it needs its own family, falling within the Ceraphronoidea superfamily.
The specimen is a female, and is thought to have lived on the forest floor or the trunks of trees where it would have parasitized the pupae of other insects. The legs were probably used to leap on prey and to make rapid escapes from wherever it had burrowed in search of victims on which to lay its eggs. The authors attribute the loss of A. burmanicus' wings to the fact that they would have gotten in the way when crawling into cramped spaces. The lack of the highly recognizable waist is more puzzling.