50 million-year-old hungry caterpillar bites found by scientists in Manchester

By Culture24 Reporter | 26 March 2014

Scientists have used the latest technology in discoveries which are expected to reveal more about the history of plant life

A photo showing a section of a leaf
An optical X-ray of a 50 million-year-old leaf fossil, collected by Stanford University, shows characteristic trumpet-shaped feeding tubes left by ancient caterpillars
Using an electromagnetic radiation technique 10 billion times brighter than the sun, a team of palaeontologists, chemists and physicists have discovered the bite marks of a 50 million-year-old caterpillar, chomped on miraculously-preserved, fossilised leaves from the scene of an epoch in the west of the US.

An overhead photo of a large silver circular scientific facility within parklands
Diamond Light Source, in Oxfordshire, is the UK's synchrotron science facility© Diamond Light Source
In the Diamond synchrotron facility in Oxfordshire, experts illuminated leaves found on the Green River Formation between Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah.

Deriving the fossil from a rock, their non-invasive scrutiny revealed copper, zinc and nickel levels which were nearly identical to those detected in modern leaves.

“In one beautiful specimen, the leaf has been partially eaten by caterpillars and their feeding tubes are preserved on the leaf,” says Professor Roy Wogelius, of the university.

“We see this behaviour with modern caterpillars. The chemistry of these fossil tubes remarkably still matches that of the leaf on which the caterpillars fed.

“This type of chemical mapping and the ability to determine the atomic arrangement of biologically important elements such as copper and sulfur can only be accomplished at a synchrotron.”

Dr Nicholas Edwards, a postdoctoral colleague of Professor Wogelius, said the technology allowed experts to “tease new information” from relics, having already carried out productive investigations into animal fossils.

“With this study, we wanted to use the same techniques to see whether we could extract a similar level of biochemical information from a completely different part of the tree of life,” he says.

“To do that we needed to test the chemistry of the fossil plants, to see whether the fossil material was derived directly from the living organisms or degraded and replaced during the fossilisation process.

“We now know that plant chemistry can be preserved over hundreds of millions of years. This opens up the possibility to study part of the biochemistry of ancient plants, so in the future it may enable us observe the changes, if any, in the use of metals by the plant kingdom through geological time.”

Copper may have proved the most powerful preservative.

“We think that copper may have aided preservation by acting as a ‘natural’ biocide, slowing down the usual microbial breakdown that would destroy delicate leaf tissues,” points out Dr Phil Manning, a senior author on the team.

“This property of copper is utilised today in the same wood preservatives that you paint on your garden fence.”

Dr Uwe Bergmann, of California’s Stanford University, was the team physicist.

“Part of what I do involves detailed measurements of the physics of how plants actually harness light energy using transition metals,” he explains.

“Here, we are able to show what metals were present, and where, within extremely old plants. And this just may let us understand, eventually, how the complicated physics of life has developed over long periods of time.”


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Top image reproduced with permission of the Royal Society of Chemistry from Nicholas Paul Edwards, Phillip Lars Manning, Uwe Bergmann, Peter Lars Larson, Bart van Dongen, William I Sellers, Samuel M Webb, Dimosthenis Sokaras, Roberto Alonso Mori, Konstantin Ignatyev, Holly E Barden, Arjen van Veelen, Jennifer Anne, Victoria M Egerton and Roy A Wogelius, Metallomics, 2014, DOI: 10.1039/C3MT00242J
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