Spittlebugs are insects of the order Hemiptera (like cicadas, aphids or bedbugs) and most feed on phloem, the sap-conducting tissue of trees. They are also known for their larvae which release a frothy liquid from the rectum which coats them and acts as protection against predators and parasitoid wasps which lay eggs inside the body. Adults, on the other hand, are capable of leaps over 100 times their body length! An ability that allows them to move from tree to tree. It is also the meadow spittlebug that is responsible for the spread of the bacteria that kills olive trees, Xylella Fastidiosawhich is rampant in Italy, Corsica, Spain and which has just entered France.
A tiny insect that fed on ferns
THE Cercopoidae currently has five families plus three old and extinct ones, including that of the Sinoalids of which this fossil named Araeoanasillus leptosomus. The first part of its name comes from the Greek words araeos (little hair) and anasillos (spiky) in reference to the fern “hairs” found in the sample, which are called trichomes. The animal is tiny: barely seven mm long with a head longer than it is wide and large round eyes. On the sides, trichomes can be seen, which suggests that it fed on ferns and laid eggs on them. Near the head, there is also a small beetle, but impossible to say if the two were in interaction or if it is a chance meeting.
Trichomes preserved in amber. Credits: George Poinar Jr/OSU.
Based on its anatomical characteristics, the Oregon State University researchers who examined it believe that this is a specimen corresponding to a new genus and a new species. His appetite for ferns is considered normal since at that time, there were forests of these plants in Burma, while flowering plants were fewer and less diversified. On the other hand, it is difficult to know more about its biology, because the fossils of the extinct families of spittlebugs are very rare.
Burmese amber, at the heart of a bloody conflict
It is the conifers that secrete the resin forming amber. These trees appeared in the Carboniferous, but experienced during the Jurassic, 200 million years ago, a radiative evolution that resulted in the appearance of many related species. It is therefore mainly from this period that most of the fossil samples found inside the amber are dated. In Burma, the majority of fossils come from the Hukawng Valley in the north of the country and are dated 100 million years.
A region which is the scene of a conflict between the Burmese army and the Kachin ethnic group which claims more autonomy. Amber is a major economic issue there (some pieces can be sold on the black market for up to 100,000 euros) and this is one of the drivers of the conflict. So much so that NGOs warn that its trade may be linked to human rights violations and war crimes (they even speak of “blood amber”). The Vertebrate Paleontology Society, which brings together dozens of paleontologists, sent a letter in April 2020 to 300 scientific journals to encourage them to no longer publish articles concerning the amber pieces acquired from June 2017. , date of the beginning of the conflict.
This fossil is indeed from the Kachin region but it has not been collected recently: it comes from the “Poinar” collection, housed at Oregon State University. George Poinar is an American entomologist, now 87 years old, he spent thirty years of his life collecting samples of amber in various localities. He was convinced that he could recover DNA from these fossils: he was one of the people who inspired Michael Crichton for the screenplay of Jurassic Park. Unfortunately, despite some announcements, it seems that wish has not been granted. It was his son, George Poinar Jr, a biologist, who carried out this research published in the journal Life.