Thursday 26 April 2012

A fossil termite from the Late Oligocene of northern Ethiopia.

Termites are an ancient group of social insects related to Cockroaches; in fact many entomologists (scientists that study insects) now regard them as a specialized group of social Cockroaches rather than a separate group. Though the group is thought to be very old, it does not have a very good fossil record, with the oldest unambiguous fossils coming from the Cretaceous, though structures thought to be termite nests have been found from the Triassic of Australia, and isolated wings that may have come from early Termites from the Permian of Kansas.

In a forthcoming paper in the journal Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, Michael Engel of the Division of Entomology (Paleoentomology) at the Natural History Museum, and the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at the University of KansasAaron Pan of the Don Harrington Discovery Center and the Botanical Research Institute of Texas and Bonnie Jacobs of the Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences at Southern Methodist University announce the discovery of a fossil termite from the Late Oligocene of Ethiopia, incidentally the first fossil termite ever found in Africa.

The new species is described from a pair of shed wings (breeding termites undertake a single flight after which they shed their wings, and settle down to found a new colony; non-reproductive castes never have wings), and named Chilgatermes diamatensis; Chilgatermes meaning termite from Chilga (the region in which it was found) and diamatensis deriving from Diamat, an ancient kingdom that included this part of Ethiopia, as well as part of neighboring Eritrea.

The shed wings from which Chilgatermes diamatensis is described. The wing is 17.4 mm × 5.9 mm.  Engel et al. (2012).

Chilgatermes diamatensis is thought to be a member of the Stolotermitidae, a group of termites that nest in rotting wood. It is part of the Guang River assemblage, which is almost entirely made up of plant fossils, leading Engel et al. to suggest there is a good chance of discovering traces of its nesting behavior. 

Stolotermes, a modern Stolotermitid Termite found in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Barbara Thorne/United Nations Environment Program

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