Mating flies found in 41-million-year-old amber.
Mating flies found in 41-million-year-old amber.
Image: Jeffrey Stilwell

A pair of long-legged flies met a Romeo-and-Juliet ending some 41 million years ago, when a falling drop of tree resin ruined their tender moment. On the bright side, their disrupted act of fornication was preserved for all eternity in this pornographic piece of amber.

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Prehistoric spiders, ants, midges, and a pair of copulating flies are among a unique treasure trove of amber fossils described in a paper published today in Scientific Reports.

Amber fossils are typically associated with the northern hemisphere, particularly Myanmar, which has produced a bewildering assortment of fossils over the years. The new selection is unique in that these are among of the oldest amber fossils collected from the southern hemisphere, including sites in Australia and New Zealand. The new paper was headed by Jeffrey Stilwell from the Monash School of Earth, Atmosphere and Environment.

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Various critters found trapped in amber originating from the southern hemisphere.
Various critters found trapped in amber originating from the southern hemisphere.
Image: J. D. Stillwell et al., 2020/Scientific Reports

The new collection spans a vast period of time, stretching from the Late Triassic period some 230 million years ago to the Late Middle Eocene some 40 million years ago. Stilwell and his colleagues uncovered thousands of pieces of amber, many of which contained various animals, plants, and microorganisms.

Amber fossils are valuable in that they offer a 3D perspective of immaculately preserved specimens. In some rare cases, these fossils can even capture a particular behavior, such as ticks crawling through dinosaur feathers or a spider attacking a wasp. In this case, the researchers were fortunate to find a pair of copulating long-legged files (Dolichopodidae), which lived in southern Gondwana during the Late Middle Eocene in what is now Anglesea, Australia.

“This may be the first example of ‘frozen behaviour’ in the fossil record of Australia,” said Stilwell in a press release.

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But as paleontologist Victoria McCoy from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee told the New York Times, these flies might not actually be in their final death positions. “It’s possible one fly was trapped in the amber and the other was a little excited and tried to mate,” said McCoy, who wasn’t involved in the research.

Hmph. Okay, fair enough—but we so want these fornicating flies to have died happy.

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For these lusty long-legged flies, their final copulatory act has been preserved for all to see, but it could’ve been worse—as exemplified by a 99-million-year-old piece of amber containing a daddy longlegs with his penis firmly erect. As I wrote in my coverage of this discovery back in 2016, “It’s possibly the oldest—and longest held—erection in the history of science.”

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And in another awkward moment caught frozen in time, a 100-million-year old chunk of Chinese amber shows a male damselfly trying to court a female. This poor guy has an eternal case of the blue balls. At least the long-legged flies actually got the chance to do the horizontal hokey-pokey.

The amber fossils are providing an unprecedented glimpse into the ecosystems that existed long ago in southern Pangea, southern Gondwana, and Zealandia. Starting between 200 million and 175 million years ago, landmasses now recognized as South America, Africa, Madagascar, India, Antarctica, and Australia began to break away from the Pangea supercontinent, forming the Gondwana minor supercontinent.

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Artist’s reconstruction of Monomorium, a previously unknown species of ant found frozen in Australian amber.
Artist’s reconstruction of Monomorium, a previously unknown species of ant found frozen in Australian amber.
Illustration: J.A. Peñas

In addition to these flies, the paper describes a newfound species of fossil ants called Monomorium and a small, wingless hexapod, both from southern Gondwana. A batch of baby spiders, biting midges, liverworts, and pieces of moss are among the other items found enveloped in the fossilized tree resin. The scientists also found a piece of amber that’s around 230 million years old—the oldest ever from southern Pangea.

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Looking ahead, the researchers will continue to catalog the various animals found in the amber, as many of them could represent new species and possibly even new groups of animals.

George is a senior staff reporter at Gizmodo.

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