Press releases

Subscribe to RSS feed

News archive

Media relations

World’s oldest fig wasp fossil proves that if it works, don’t change it

The world’s oldest known example of a fig wasp has been found on the Isle of Wight.

The fossil wasp is almost identical to the modern species, proving that this tiny but specialised insect has remained virtually unchanged for over 34 million years.

The fossil isn't a new find but was wrongly identified as an ant when it was first discovered in the 1920s. Fig wasp expert at the University of Leeds, Dr Steve Compton, was called in to study the fossil when the late Dr Mikhail Kozlov spotted the mistake during research at the Natural History Museum, London into the flora and fauna of the Isle of Wight. The findings of Dr Compton and the team are published today 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 at the Museum, Dr Compton's team compared the fossils with modern fig wasps and with an example in Dominican amber dated to 20 million years, which he had bought over the internet and has since donated to the Museum. Their findings show that both fossil insects had the same body shape and features as modern species.

Because fig wasp larvae do better if they feed within a pollinated flower, the most highly developed species of wasps actively pollinate the figs before laying their eggs, rather than passively spreading pollen as they move between trees. The wasps collect pollen in pockets on the underside of their bodies and then take it to another tree, where they pull it out and spread in on the flowers before laying their eggs.

The team found pollen pockets on the underside of the fossil wasp and the wasp in amber and, using scanning electron microscopy, identified grains of fig pollen within the pockets. This proves that active pollination was already achieved over 34 million years ago and has remained unchanged to this day.

The edible figs we eat today are produced on specialised female plants that trick the wasps into entering the figs and strip off their wings, but then prevent them from laying any eggs. As a result, the figs produce only seeds and no wasp offspring. The length of the ovipositor - the organ the wasp uses to lay its eggs - of the Isle of White fig wasp shows that its host fig tree had already evolved this method of cheating on its partner.

"We believe from molecular evidence that fig wasps and fig trees have been evolving together for over 60 million years," says Dr Compton. "Now we have fossil confirmation that gets us a bit closer to that date. Although we often think of the world as constantly changing, what this fossil gives us is an example of something remaining unchanged for tens of millions of years - something which in biology we call 'stasis'."

One of the major changes the fig and its wasp will have had to face - beyond obvious climatic differences that mean fig trees are no longer native to the Isle of Wight - is the range of animals that eat the fruit and spread its seeds. Figs are a major source of food in tropical forests and more birds and mammals feed on figs than on any other fruit - so it's reassuring to know that these plants and their pollinators have responded successfully to previous episodes of climate change.

Image credit: Simon van Noort, Iziko Museums of Cape Town, www.figweb.org

Further information:
Jo Kelly, Campuspr Ltd, Tel 0113 258 9880, Mob 07980 267756, email jokelly@campusp.co.uk

University of Leeds Press Office. Tel 0113 343 4031, Email pressoffice@leeds.ac.uk

For images, please contact:
Natural History Museum Press Office, Tel: 020 7942 5654 Email: press@nhm.ac.uk (not for publication)

Notes to editors

  1. This research will be published online (at 00:01 BST Wednesday 16th June) in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters in a paper entitled "Ancient fig wasps indicate at least 34 million years of stasis in their mutualism with fig trees."  Biology Letters publishes short, highly-innovative, cutting-edge research articles and opinion pieces accessible to scientists from across the biological sciences.  Embargoed advance copies of the paper are available from Daisy Barton, Royal Society Press Office, Tel: 020 7451 2510, Email: daisy.barton@royalsociety.org 
  2. The research team includes:

    Dr Steve Compton, Reader in Entomology in the Institute of Integrative and Comparative Biology in the Faculty of Biological Sciences at the University of Leeds.

    Dr Alex Ball, manager of the Electron Microscope Unit in the Electron Microscopy and Mineral Analysis facility at the Natural History Museum.

    Dr Margaret Collinson, Palaeobotanist and expert on early Paleogene (65-30Ma) plants. She is an Honorary Research Fellow at the Natural History Museum.

    Dr Peta Hayes, curator of palaeobotany at the Natural History Museum, and is an expert on Palaeogene leaf floras and their use in the reconstruction of palaeoclimatic conditions.

    Dr Alexandr Rasnitsyn, Chief of the Arthropod Laboratory and Principal Researcher at the Paleontological Institute, Academy of Sciences of the USSR.

    Dr Andrew Ross, principal curator of Palaeobiology at the National Museum of Scotland, he is an expert on Fossil arthropods, particularly the taxonomy, biodiversity and palaeoecology of insects.
  3. The Faculty of Biological Sciences at the University of Leeds is one of the largest in the UK, with over 150 academic staff and over 400 postdoctoral fellows and postgraduate students. The Faculty is ranked 4th in the UK (Nature Journal, 457 (2009) doi :10.1038/457013a) based on results of the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). The RAE feedback noted that "virtually all outputs were assessed as being recognized internationally, with many (60%) being internationally excellent or world-leading" in quality. The Faculty's research grant portfolio totals some £60M and funders include charities, research councils, the European Union and industry. www.fbs.leeds.ac.uk 
  4. The Electron Microscopy and Mineral Analysis Unit (EMMA Unit) at London's Natural History Museum provides state of the art imaging and analysis facilities. The EMMA Unit attracts researchers and curators from all over the world, and last year received over 200 scientific visitors from over 20 UK institutions and 18 countries internationally.   
  5. Winner of Visit London's 2009 Best London for Free Experience Award, the Natural History Museum is also a world-leading science research centre. Through its collections and scientific expertise, the Museum is helping to conserve the extraordinary richness and diversity of the natural world with groundbreaking projects in over 68 countries.

    The Natural History Museum is part of the worldwide celebrations of the International Year of Biodiversity 2010. The diversity of life on Earth is crucial for human well-being and now is the time to act to preserve it. For information on events, initiatives and exhibitions across the UK, visit www.biodiversityislife.net 
Join the conversation at http://twitter.com/universityleeds #leedslovesresearch