Preservation of three-dimensional anatomy in phosphatized fossil arthropods enriches evolutionary inference

  • Schwermann A
  • dos Santos Rolo T
  • Caterino M
  • et al.
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External and internal morphological characters of extant and fossil organisms are crucial to establishing their systematic position, ecological role and evolutionary trends. The lack of internal characters and soft-tissue preservation in many arthropod fossils, however, impedes comprehensive phylogenetic analyses and species descriptions according to taxonomic standards for Recent organisms. We found well-preserved three-dimensional anatomy in mineralized arthropods from Paleogene fissure fillings and demonstrate the value of these fossils by utilizing digitally reconstructed anatomical structure of a hister beetle. The new anatomical data facilitate a refinement of the species diagnosis and allowed us to reject a previous hypothesis of close phylogenetic relationship to an extant congeneric species. Our findings suggest that mineralized fossils, even those of macroscopically poor preservation, constitute a rich but yet largely unexploited source of anatomical data for fossil arthropods.Fossils are the preserved remains of animals, plants or other organisms. The most highly prized fossils are those that retain their original three-dimensional shape and provide details needed to identify what species it represents, and what its closest living relatives might be. However, even fossils with the most beautifully preserved external anatomy can lack the internal structures that also help to identify its evolutionary history. “Mineralized” fossils are particularly useful for researchers as they form in a process that helps to preserve the internal anatomy of the organism. This type of fossil forms when mineral-laden water surrounds an organism’s body so that the minerals are deposited in its cells and turn soft tissues to stone.In the 1940s, Swiss scientist Eduard Handschin used eight mineralized fossil specimens to describe a 25-40 million-year-old beetle species called Onthophilus intermedius. On the basis of the external anatomy of the two best-preserved specimens, Handschin claimed this species was distinct from, but closely related to a beetle species called O. striatus that is found in Europe today.Since then, fossil examination methods have greatly advanced and include three-dimensional X-ray based imaging techniques that reveal the internal structures of a fossil while leaving it intact. One such technique is called X-ray computed tomography, in which numerous X-ray images of a solid object are taken from different angles. These images are then reassembled using computer software to create a virtual three-dimensional model of the object.Here, Schwermann et al. used this X-ray technique to re-examine the beetle fossils originally reported by Handschin. This analysis revealed many new details of these specimens’ external and internal anatomies, including their gut, genitals and airways. These new insights place Onthophilus intermedius into a different evolutionary lineage to O. striatus. They also suggest that mineralized fossils could provide a rich source of data for studies on fossil insects and other arthropods, even if they appear to be poorly preserved on the outside.




Schwermann, A. H., dos Santos Rolo, T., Caterino, M. S., Bechly, G., Schmied, H., Baumbach, T., & van de Kamp, T. (2016). Preservation of three-dimensional anatomy in phosphatized fossil arthropods enriches evolutionary inference. ELife, 5.

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