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Fig wasps have remained unchanged for millions of years

Posted on 18/06/2010

Image of Fig wasps by Cairnarvan.Rotahall

The way that fig wasps pollinate fig trees has remained unchanged for at least 34 million years scientists have revealed.

The world’s oldest known example of a fig wasp has been found on the Isle of Wight and is almost identical to the modern species, proving that this tiny insect has remained virtually unchanged for millions of years.

The fossil is not a new find but was wrongly identified as an ant when it was first discovered in the 1920s. Researchers, including Dr Margaret Collinson from the Department of Earth Sciences at Royal Holloway, University of London, and Dr Steve Compton from the University of Leeds, were asked to study the fossils and their findings are published in the ‘Royal Society journal Biology Letters.’

"There were three very well-preserved specimens and we were able to use modern techniques to look at them in detail," says Dr Compton. "What makes this fossil fascinating is not just its age, but that it is so similar to the modern species. This means that the complex relationship that exists today between the fig wasps and their host trees developed more than 34 million years ago and has remained unchanged since then."

Fig wasps and fig trees are mutually dependent, with each of the 800 or so modern species of tree pollinated by just one or two species of fig wasp that ignore other fig trees. The wasps - which measure just 1.5mm in length - have developed a particular body shape and features to enable them to crawl into figs to reach the flowers there.

Using state of the art microscopy facilities the researchers found ancient fig tree pollen, its microscopic granules shaped like a rugby ball, concentrated in one area of the wasp – in specialised pollen pockets on the underside of its body, which is exactly where modern fig wasps store their pollen.


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