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Scientists at Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago discover missing link in Darwin's tree of life

Updated on July 20, 2013

My first press release!

After a somewhat brief summer hiatus, I am returning to writing posts, beginning with this one! My first press release, written as a freelancer for the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, IL, was published on July 1, 2013. Another to come this week!

While I enjoyed writing the press release, the study had already been published and made available to the scientific community, so here is my tribute to both the release, and the study itself.

The release begins: Field Museum scientists have teamed up with scientists at the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology in Nanjing, China to describe a new "rove" beetle, from fossils that were most likely unearthed by local farmers.

A rove beetle is a beetle with short wing covers, and a relatively hard abdomen - not typically what you think of when you hear the word "beetle".

Not your typical beetle...

Even though there are over 59,000 species living today, with many more being discovered each year, they are incredibly cryptic, making their residence in rotting logs and underground. Chances are, you've never even seen one!

The fossil of the species just discovered is the oldest representative – and only the second fossil - of its kind!

It's likely that a famer in China came upon the fossil in his field. Knowing that scientists would be interested in the fossil, he probably gave it to scientists at the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology, in Nanjing. This particular fossil is only about 5 millimeters in length, so imagine what a find that was! The area in which the fossil was unearthed is known as the Yixian Formation of Liaoning Province, China. It is more famous for its fossils of feathered dinosaurs, mammals, birds, and plants than for the numerous insects that it contains. Geologists agree that its age is Early Cretaceous, meaning that this rove beetle species existed along with dinosaurs!

Referring to the specimen, Dr. Margaret Thayer, Associate Curator at the Field Museum and co-author on the paper said: “The Yixian fossil[s] are remarkable because they are so well-preserved, which allows us to classify this beetle with unusual confidence.”

In fact, this new rove beetle represents something called a “missing link” in Darwin’s Tree of Life – meaning that it falls on a branch between two other branches, helping to chart the evolution of these beetles.

Like other fossils, it’s important for understanding both the timing and the geography of evolutionary events,” said Dr. Thayer. “This discovery adds depth to our knowledge of this particular phylogeny and provides a calibration point on the evolutionary timescale.”

According to the release, discoveries like this add to scientist’s knowledge about a particular group of organisms, and help us to better understand the dynamics of the evolutionary timescale.

Why is this exciting? Let’s look at the bigger picture.

While this discovery may be of great interest to a particular group of people, the published study is representative of a magnificent relationship between the Field Museum of Natural History, and the Nanjing Institute in China. It is a model for scientists everywhere, and goes to show that such collaborations have great value in science. Together, we can synthesize an understanding of this world!

“The scientists at the Nanjing Institute have collected the fossils with help from local villagers,” said Dr. Thayer. “They sought our expertise to help them classify and describe the many rove beetle specimens they have.”

In the words of the release, the ongoing international collaboration between Field Museum scientists Margaret Thayer and Alfred Newton, and scientists Chen-yang Cai and Di-ying Huang at the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology, Chinese Academy of Sciences is yielding many exciting finds that highlight the importance of scientific teamwork.

Congratulations on your breakthrough!

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