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A fly's last meal 47 million years ago

The insect was found during one of the annual excavations of the Senckenberg Society for Nature Research in the Messel Pit. In the oil shale of this former mining site in the German state of Hesse, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, numerous animals and plants from almost 50 million years ago have been preserved. The German researchers asked Fridgeir Grímsson from the University of Vienna to examine the stomach contents of the fossil fly. The paleobotanist had already researched fossil bees and the pollen from the Messel pit that adhered to them.

Extinct species of known genus

The fly belongs to the genus "Hirmoneura". "This genus still exists today, but the species we describe has become extinct," said Grimsson. In order to get to the stomach contents, the researchers had to remove parts of the petrified chitin layer. Among them they found pollen from various plants that, according to Grimsson, had also undergone a fossilization process.

The analysis published in the journal “Current Biology” gave an insight into the interrelationships between living beings and their environment at the time. The stomach contents are "proof that flies ate pollen 47 million years ago and suggests that it played an important role in the distribution of pollen from various plants," says Grímsson.

The flies not only eat the pollen, when they visit the flowers, pollen also sticks to the tiny hairs on their bodies, so that they contribute to the spread of the pollen. "Flies were important pollinators in ancient subtropical and tropical ecosystems and possibly even eclipsed the role of bees," says the researcher.

In the stomach contents of the fly, pollen from water willow dominated (Decodon) and wild wine or maiden vines (Parthenocissus). Because the water willow is a shrub that grows in wetlands and in the shallow water of lakes, the researchers conclude that it is an open habitat with a low canopy. And the traces of the wild wine, a plant that climbs trees, show that the fly fed on pollen from plants that grew on the edge of the forest around the lake. “It is therefore very likely that the fly avoided long flights between the food sources and sought pollen from plants that were close together,” says Grímsson.