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Full-bellied fossil suggests flies were active pollinators 47 million years ago

The full-bellied fly fossil -- representing a new species, Hirmoneura messelense -- was found among ancient lake sediment layers in Germany's Messel Pit. Photo by Senckenberg
The full-bellied fly fossil -- representing a new species, Hirmoneura messelense -- was found among ancient lake sediment layers in Germany's Messel Pit. Photo by Senckenberg

March 11 (UPI) -- An ancient insect fossil, recently unearthed in Germany, suggests flies were actively pollinating a diversity of plants some 49 million years ago.

Analysis of the fossil, published this week in the journal Current Biology, suggests the fly gorged itself on plant food prior to its demise. Scientists used pollen remains found in the fly's stretched stomach to reconstruct the ancient environment's plant diversity.

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The novel fly species, Hirmoneura messelense, was discovered among layers of ancient lake sediments at the Messel Pit, a fossil-rich Eocene deposit that was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995.

Most investigations of pollination services focus on bees and butterflies, but other insects, including flies, help pollinate, too. The latest findings suggest flies had evolved to become dynamic pollinators by the Early Eocene Epoch.

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"The rich pollen content we discovered in the fly's stomach suggests that flies were already feeding and transporting pollen 47 million years ago and shows it played an important role in the pollen dispersal of several plant taxa," study co-author Fridgeir Grímsson said in a press release.

"Flies were major pollinators in ancient tropical [and subtropical] equivalent ecosystems and might even have outshined the bees," said Grímsson, a botanist at the University of Vienna.

Pollen grains extracted by the researchers revealed an abundance of waterwillow and virgin ivy species -- members of the plant genera Decodon and Parthenocissus, respectively.

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Today, waterwillow, sometimes called swamp loosestrife, is a clump-forming, shrubby plant found among the wetlands of the United States and Canada, suggesting the full-bellied fly lived among open, low-canopy vegetation.

"It is likely that the fly avoided long-distance flights between food sources and sought pollen from closely associated plants," Grímsson said.

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