New cricket discovered in long-neglected amber collection

Sir David Attenborough narrates the digital curation of a 20-million-year-old amber collection at the Illinois Natural History Survey at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)

Researchers at the Illinois Natural History Survey have reported a fascinating new species of cricket — one that lived in the Dominican Republic some 20 million years ago. But for half a century, the bug sat undiscovered and ignored in the lab, buried in a pile of amber in a 5-gallon drum.

Electrotettix attenboroughi (named after naturalist and broadcaster David Attenborough) was a tiny grasshopper, no bigger than a rose thorn. While modern relatives of the cricket are totally wingless, the newly discovered species has vestigial wings.  It couldn’t fly, according to Sam Heads, a paleontologist at the Illinois Natural History Survey. But it retained hints of its ancestors’ wings. “We wouldn’t exactly call it a missing link, but it’s certainly an interesting intermediate between a fully winged ancestor and a wingless descendent,” Heads said.

But this little cricket was lucky to be found. The piece of amber housing the cricket was just one chunk of a 160-pound haul. Collected in the 1950s by an entomologist named Milton Sanderson, the ancient amber was reported once in Science magazine and then forgotten.

Milton Sanderson, an entomologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey, collected amber from the Dominican Republic. He reported on a few specimens, but the bulk of the amber is only now being screened for fossils. CREDIT: Milton Sanderson family.
Milton Sanderson, an entomologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey, collected amber from the Dominican Republic. The bulk of the amber is now being screened. (Milton Sanderson family)

“Sanderson screened some of it at the time, but only very little,” Heads said. “Screening amber wasn’t his job, so it was a weekend thing for him.” When Sanderson retired, Heads said, the amber went into a cabinet under a sink.

Heads found the stash in 2010. Along with laboratory technician Jared Thomas, he began to screen it for fossilized organisms. They found Electrotettix attenboroughi almost immediately, and expect to find much more. “I’d say 1 in 10 pieces have fossils in them,” Heads said, “and often more than one. So we find them every day, and if you’re looking long enough, you’ll find something new.”

While the cricket is their first published discovery, Heads said that several more were already in the works. Heads and Thomas have enough amber to keep them busy for years, so there’s no telling what they’ll find.

“This actually happens all the time,” Heads said. “Things are put in storage, and you lose track of them.”

Similar collections sit forgotten in museums and research labs all over the world. But it’s important that these collections receive the support they need to stay in storage — and eventually be examined. “You don’t have to go out into the jungle to make discoveries,” Heads said. “You can make them in a museum, and that’s what we’re doing here every day.”

Rachel Feltman runs The Post's Speaking of Science blog.
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Rachel Feltman · July 29