World's oldest 'bug' is a fossilized 425-million-year-old millipede

World’s oldest ‘bug’ is a fossilized 425-million-year-old millipede discovered on a Scottish Island that suggests the ancient creatures evolved from water to live on land in just 40 million years

  • The fossilized millipede was found on the Scottish Island of Kerrera
  • An improved dating technique found it is 75 million years younger than believed
  • Researchers suggest the creatures left water for land in just 40 million years 

Researchers have discovered the world’s oldest ‘bug’ on record – a 425-million-year-old fossilized millipede.

The remains were uncovered on the Scottish Island of Kerrera and suggest bugs and plants evolved much faster than previously believed.

After analyzing the petrified insect, the team determined that the ancient creatures left lakes to live in complex forest ecosystems in just 40 million years.

Researchers used a technique to determine that the millipede is 75 million years younger than previously estimated by extracting zircons, which is a microscopic mineral needed to accurately date the fossils.

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Researchers have discovered the world’s oldest ‘bug’ on record – a 425-million-year-old fossilized millipede. After analyzing the petrified insect, the team determined that the ancient creatures left lakes to live in complex forest ecosystems in just 40 million years

Michael Brookfield, a research associate at the University of Texas Austin’s Jackson School of Geosciences and adjunct professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston, said: ‘It’s a big jump from these tiny guys to very complex forest communities, and in the scheme of things, it didn’t take that long.’

‘It seems to be a rapid radiation of evolution from these mountain valleys, down to the lowlands, and then worldwide after that.’

Brookfield, who led the study, worked with co-authors Elizabeth Catlos, a professor in the Jackson School’s Department of Geological Sciences, and Stephanie Suarez, a doctoral student at the University of Houston.

Together they made improvements to the fossil dating technique used in the study.

The remains were uncovered on the Scottish Island of Kerrera (pictured) and suggest bugs and plants evolved much faster than previously believed.

Following the analysis, the team determined the fossilized millipede is 425 million years old, or about 75 million years younger than the age other scientists have estimated the oldest millipede to be using a technique known as molecular clock dating, which is based on DNA’s mutation rate.  

Although it’s certainly possible there are older fossils of both bugs and plants, Brookfield said that the fact they haven’t been found – even in deposits known for preserving delicate fossils from this era – could indicate that the ancient millipede and plant fossils that have already been discovered are the oldest specimens.

If this theory is true, then experts can determine that both bugs and plants evolved much more rapidly than the timeline indicated by the molecular clock. 

Previous work has dated insect deposits to just 20 million years later than the fossils. 

And by 40 million years later, there’s evidence of thriving forest communities filled with spiders, insects and tall trees.

Given their potential evolutionary significance, Brookfield said that he was surprised that this study was the first to address the age of the ancient millipedes.

Suarez said a reason could be the difficulty of extracting zircons – a microscopic mineral needed to precisely date the fossils – from the ashy rock sediment in which the fossil was preserved.   

Stephanie Suarez (pictured) improved the traditional dating technique by separating the zircon grain from the sediment. Once zircons are released from the surrounding rock, the team was able to retrieve them with a pin glued to the tip of a pencil (pictured)

Kerrera is located on Scotland towards the southern region of the country

She improved the technique by separating the zircon grain from the sediment. 

Once zircons are released from the surrounding rock, the team was able to retrieve them with a pin glued to the tip of a pencil – a process the researchers said ‘involves an eagle-eye hunt.’

‘That kind of work trained me for the work that I do here in Houston,’ Suarez said. ‘It’s delicate work.’

She used the technique to find that a different millipede specimen, thought to be the oldest bug specimen at the time, was about 14 million years younger than estimated – a discovery that stripped it of the title of oldest bug. 

Using the same technique, this study passes the distinction along to a new specimen.

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