Jurassic toe biter! 151 million-year-old water bug discovered in Utah

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VERNAL, Utah (ABC4 News) – It’s a big predatory bug, a distant relative to modern water bugs (known as toe biters in some areas) and it’s from Utah! A relatively large predator whose present-day relatives are known to attack and eat invertebrates like snails and crustaceans but also vertebrates like fish, amphibians and snakes. Luckily, we don’t have to contend with this monster insect in our modern times.

This bug is a 151 million-year-old fossil. Another treasure found in the world famous Morrison Formation. It is the same rock that gave us famous dinosaurs like Apatosaurus, Allosaurus, Stegosaurus and everyone’s favorite Utahraptor

According to a press release, many of the dinosaurs of Utah have been found in the Morrison formation, a big grouping of Upper Jurassic sedimentary rock found in the western United States. It’s centered in Wyoming and Colorado with parts of it in several other states including Utah. It’s most famous part here we know as Dinosaur National Monument.

A team of paleontologists from Utah and Argentina made the discovery.

The new insect, named Morrisonnepa Jurassica, was published in a recent paper in the Journal of Historical Biology.

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Morrisonnepa was a member of the hemipteran insect group Nepomorpha, that’s the scientific name for “true water bugs.” Modern water bugs have a large stinging proboscis near their mouth they use to attack prey, although they can fly, they spend most of their time hunting underwater in ponds and streams.

Their bite is reported to be extremely painful to humans.

Dinosaur National Monument fire spreads _1482123791257587453
Courtesy: Natural History Museum

The new prehistoric Utah bug was originally found in 2017, in Southeastern Utah, this part of the Morrison formation was full of fossil ferns, and ginkgoes.

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The new insect fossil consists of most of the abdomen, two elements of the forewing, and possibly the head and is only the second insect fossil to be discovered in the formation. The first one was a distant relative of grasshoppers and crickets. They found it in Colorado and it was described in 2011.

Scientists and adventurers have been discovering dinosaurs for 140 years in the Morrison Formation the insect fossil record is just now coming to light.

Mitten Park Fault, Dinosaur National Monument, 2016. Courtesy: NPS

Paleoentomologist María Belén Lara of the Centro de Ecología Aplicada del Litoral in Argentina was the lead author on the study.

“Most of the information on fossil insects in the United States comes from Carboniferous, Permian (Paleozoic Era), and Triassic (Mesozoic) strata,” Belén said. “Therefore, this finding is of utmost importance for the country. Also, with this discovery, we can support that the true aquatic bugs of the Jurassic were morphologically similar to their modern counterparts.”

Utah Paleontologist James Kirkland of the Utah Geological Survey described the late Jurassic setting where the bug lived as an oxbow pond.

“The plant debris beds and conglomerate beds below it suggests that when the nearby rivers were in flood, the pond served as a catchment for all sorts of things,” said Kirkland. “Among that debris were many leaves and the rare insect.”

John Foster of the Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum in Vernal explained fossil evidence of insects in the Late Jurassic in North America has been so lacking, most paleontologists had to rely on indirect evidence that can be limiting.

“We always dreamed of finding actual insect fossils in the Morrison, but until the first report in 2011 there had been nothing,” Foster said. “That report gave us hope, but still, when this specimen appeared under a microscope, mixed in with a bulk batch of unidentified plant fossil material, it was shocking to realize that we were looking at an insect abdomen and wing – and big ones.”

According to the press release, everyone’s shock lead to excitement when they realized the insect turned out to be nothing for which there had been any evidence. They had discovered a relatively large semi-aquatic predator that hunted vertebrae prey in the waters of the time.

Kirkland added that modern giant water bugs’ reputations for being fierce predators is not exaggerated.

“I picked one up when I was out fishing once,” Kirkland said. “An impressive two-inch bug, but if it lays into you with that proboscis, you’ll drop it fast.”

Where they found the bug was just discovered in 2016. The large fossil bug is now in the paleontology collections at the Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum.

The team is going to return to the site soon to see if they can find more fossilized insects.

“There are plenty of good plant fossils at this site, so if we luck out and can find more insects too, it’ll be the icing on the cake, as they say,” Foster said.

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