Tiny Prehistoric Beetle Was First to Mooch off Termites

Cai et al., 2017
Cai et al., 2017 / Cai et al., 2017

Why buy the cow when you can get the termite hole for free? The insects known as termitophiles make themselves right at home in termites’ cozy nests. Now scientists say they may have found the first enterprising moocher to move in—99 million years ago. They published their findings in the journal Current Biology.

The amber mines of Myanmar have yielded some incredible discoveries. Last year, paleontologists reported finding both dinosaur wings and tail feathers in amber markets. The latest discovery, of minuscule, horseshoe-crab-like beetles, may be less flashy, but is no less important in the history of life on this planet.

Cai et al., 2017

With a body length of just 0.03 inches, the new specimens may look itsy-bitsy to us, but they’re actually pretty big compared to the rest of their family. Modern rove beetles in the Trichopseniini tribe are all tiny, and they all perform the insect equivalent of couch-surfing, setting up shop in termites’ nests and snacking on the fungi inside without bothering anybody.

Scientists previously believed that Trichopseniini and other moochers made their first foray into termite nests around 19 million years ago. Yet the newly discovered specimens (named Cretotrichopsenius burmiticus after the Burmese mine where they’d been hanging out) are at least 80 million years older than that.

“The fossil reveals a richer ecology within early insect societies during the Cretaceous,” the authors note, “and a lengthy period of co-evolution between termites, the first of all social insects, and their numerous arthropod associates.”