Lizard Entombed With Dragonfly Head in Mouth

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Researchers have found what they are calling a "Halloween horror story" involving a headless dragonfly, a dead lizard and a battle frozen in time.Dinosaurs may have witnessed it all.

According to a report in Paleodiversity, around 100 million years ago a lizard lunged at a dragonfly, bit its head off, turned and ran away. The lizard, however, never lived to savor its lunch because both the dragonfly and the lizard were at that point encased in a tomb of dripping tree resin.

The resin fossilized into amber, preserving the telltale evidence for perpetuity.

According to the paper, the headless insect represents a new dragonfly subfamily, called Paleodisparoneurinae, and it is the oldest specimen of this insect ever to have been found in amber.

The findings also demonstrate that, even in this ever-changing world, some things stay somewhat the same. In this case, the predator-prey scenario is like the ongoing roadrunner and Wile E Coyote cartoon chase.

"Dragonflies are still eaten by small lizards every day, it's a routine predator/prey interaction," said George Poinar, a professor emeritus at Oregon State University. "This shows once again how behaviors of various life forms are retained over vast amounts of time, and continues to give us insights into the ecology of ancient ecosystems."

Poinar added that dragonflies are one of the world's more colorful, interesting and successful insects. This latest discovery is the oldest dragonfly ever found in amber, but other stone fossil specimens of dragonflies date back as much as 300 million years, including some that were huge, with wingspans up to three feet.

"Dragonflies are now, and probably were then, very quick, evasive, and greedy predators," Poinar said. "They feed on other larvae and insects, mosquitoes, gnats, lots of things. Some are quite beautiful, very popular with insect collectors. And some modern populations like to migrate regionally, going south to mate."

Dragonflies are also good eats, then and now, for many animals. Poinar thinks young and hatchling dinosaurs probably dined on them.

The quick and merciless battle preserved in the amber took place in the jungles of the Hukawng Valley of Burma, now known as Myanmar. The dragonfly -- with one notably missing part -- is preserved almost perfectly. Only the foot and tail of a small lizard remains in the stone, presumably as the animal was trying to flee.

"It's unfortunate we don't have the entire specimen of the lizard, because it probably had the dragonfly's head in its mouth," Poinar said. "Both died when they were trapped in the tree sap in the middle of this duel."

As a side note, I encourage you to examine amber when you come across it, as you too can find all sorts of Dinosaur Era inclusions. (A lot of fake amber exists, so buyer beware.) But you may even find non-avian dinosaur feathers.

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