Time’s Capsule: A 49-Million-Year-Old Beetle, Perfectly Preserved, Likes a Modern Squash, Defying the Millennium March

Pulchritudo attenboroughi is a member of the frog-legged beetle family, despite being initially recognized as a particular kind of long-horned beetle. Denver Museum of Nature and Science provided the image.

A 49 million-year-old beetle has been preserved to such an extent that it appears as though it could spread its fantastically patterned wing coverings and take flight. If it weren’t crushed and turned into a fossil, that is.

Even though wing casings, or elytra, are among the strongest components of a beetle’s exoskeleton, scientists have lately discovered that fossils with this degree of color contrast and clarity are extremely uncommon.

Researchers named the ancient beetle Pulchritudo attenboroughi, or Attenborough’s Beauty, after renowned naturalist and television broadcaster Sir David Attenborough because of its exquisite elytra pattern. The pattern is “the most perfectly preserved pigment-based coloration known in fossil beetles,” according to a recent research.

The beetle beauty was already in the Denver Museum of Nature and Science’s (DMNS) collection when the researchers described it; it had been on exhibit there since its discovery in 1995. That year, paleontologists discovered the fossil in the Green River Formation. This rich fossil deposit, which spanned Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah, was formerly a collection of lakes and belonged to the Eocene epoch, which occurred between 55.8 million and 33.9 million years ago.

The fossil was first identified by scientists as a long-horned beetle belonging to the genus Cerambycidae. Although its body resembled that of long-horned beetles, Frank-Thorsten Krell, the lead author of the new study, the museum’s senior curator of entomology, wondered if the beetle might be a member of a distinct group because of its abnormally short and meaty hind limbs.

The study’s authors identified the beetle as a new genus within the frog-legged leaf beetle subfamily, which is distinguished by its strong and robust hind legs. According to Krell’s email to Live Science, the fossilized insect is a female and only the second example of a frog-legged leaf beetle discovered in North America (the paper states that no living current beetles in this group exist in North America today). Dark, symmetrical circular patterns on P. attenboroughi’s back contrast sharply with the pale background. According to the researchers, this implies that beetles had bold patterns at least 50 million years ago.

Pulchritudido attenboroughi, digital reconstruction. Denver Museum of Nature and Science provided the image.

A extremely fine-grained sediment is necessary for a beetle to fossilize as successfully as this one did, according to Krell. The greatest substrate for fossilizing insects is silt or clay found at a lake’s bottom, and the beetle needs to descend far enough into the silty bottom to dissolve its body before it does. An oxygen-poor environment on the lake floor is beneficial, he continued, since “and then it should not rot.”

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