A tiny beetle that was first trapped in amber 99 million years ago has been discovered by scientists.
The diminutive specimen is only half the length of a grain of rice and was unearthed in Myanmar.
Named Propiestus archaicus, the animal is a distant relative of the Rove beetle that exists today in South America and the southern part of Arizona.
Scientists claim that the huge geographical difference between the two locations provides clues to explain how the Earth’s continents moved over time following the disintegration of the supercontinent Pangaea.
‘This is a very rare find,’ said Shuhei Yamamoto, a Field Museum researcher and lead author of the paper, published in the Journal of Systematic Palaeontology.
Researchers now believe the beetle existed on Earth at a time when the super-continent Pangaea broke up and formed a land mass called Gondwanaland.
‘Like koalas and kangaroos today, certain animals that we think lived in Gondwanaland are only found in one part of the world,’ Dr Yamamoto explained.
‘Although Propiestus went extinct long ago, our finding probably shows some amazing connections between Southern Hemisphere and Myanmar.
‘Our finding fits well with the hypothesis that, unlike today, Myanmar was once located in the Southern Hemisphere.’
The beetle existed during the late Cretaceous at a time when dinosaurs dominated the world but the researchers say the animal’s elongated antennae allowed it to flourish.
Measuring only 0.1 inches (2.5 mm) long, the beetle relied on its antennae, flattened body and short legs to navigate through foliage and underneath rotten trees.
‘The antennae probably had a highly sensitive ability as a sensory organ,’ Dr Yamamoto said.
‘There wouldn’t have been a lot of space available in the beetle’s habitat, so it was important to be able to detect everything.
‘This fossil helps us understand life in the Mesozoic era,’ he concluded. ‘We need to think about everything from that time, both big and small.’
Propiestus is just one of thousands of Burmese amber specimens that entombed small insects that lived during the Cretaceous era.
Originally a highly viscous tree sap it hardens over time and eventually produces amber which preserves any organic matter trapped within it.
An unremarkable object to begin with, the amber looks like a normal rock to the untrained eye.
Experienced amber spotters can identify the material and sell it to either jewellers or researchers.
This particular specimen was subjected to a gentle sandpaper treatment to carefully polish the amber in order to make the specimen clearly visible.
‘It was very exciting, because the cutting process is very sensitive,’ Dr Yamamoto said.
‘If you cut too fast or apply too much pressure, you destroy the inclusion inside very quickly.’