Around 41 million years ago, on the southern tip of what was then the Gondwana continent, two mating flies were unexpectedly interrupted as tree resin got them into a sticky–and not necessarily good–situation. The two insects became trapped, without any chances of escape. They remained hidden from sight, trapped in amber for 41 million years until a group of paleontologists found them in the Otway Basin of present-day southern Australia.
The supercontinent of Gondwana was part of Australia, Antarctica, India, Africa, and Southern America. It broke of from the Pangea supercontinent some 200 million years ago.
“This is one of the greatest discoveries in paleontology for Australia,” explained Associate Professor Jeffrey Stilwell, further adding that this may be one of the first examples of ‘frozen behavior’ in the fossil record of the continent.
Frozen in time, their love story survived for millions of years. in 2011, the copulating flies trapped in Amber came in the hand of researcher Jeffrey Stilwell from Monash University who couldn’t believe his eyes. Not because of the love scene, but because it is extremely rare to fun such specimens in the Southern Hemisphere.
Finding two inspects trapped in amber in a love affair is a very rare discovery, and finding that specific specimen is australis is even so. For Stillwell, the amber is a “Holy Grail” for paleontology, because it preserves the ancient organisms in an almost timeless animation where the insects look almost as if they had become trapped yesterday.
“Amber is considered to be a ‘Holy Grail’ in the discipline, as organisms are preserved in a state of suspended animation in perfect 3D space, looking just like they died yesterday – but in fact are many millions of years old, providing us with an enormous amount of information on ancient terrestrial ecosystems,” the researcher revelaed.
Sidwell and his team revealed that most amber records originate from the Northern Hemisphere, so this piece of amber will help scientists better understand what the Southern Hemisphere was like, tens of millions of years ago.
“The research furthers our understanding of prehistoric southern ecosystems in Australia and New Zealand during the Late Triassic to mid-Paleogene periods (230–40 million years ago),” Stilwell explained.
The researchers explored various sites across Australia and New Zealand and discovered a plethora of different pieces of Amber from the supercontinent Osuthern Pangaea. Their study, published in Nature’s Scientific Reports details more than 5,800 different pieces of Amber, some of which were taken from western Tasmania, and date back 54 million years, and from Anglesea, Victoria, dating back some 42 million years.
The researchers also discovered what they believe is the oldest known animals and plants preserved in amber from the Southern Gondwana continent. Among the ancient spiders, wingless hexapods and biting midges, the mating flies were the Eureka moment of the discovery.
“Despite concerted efforts by many researchers for well over a century,” the authors write, “no early Mesozoic or pre-Neogene amber with animal and plant inclusions, has been recovered from Southern Pangaea and Southern Gondwana until this report with scores of new records and vast potential for future finds.”