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Creepy crawly cockroach ancestor revealed in new 3-D model

An early ancestor of the cockroach that lived around 300 million years ago is unveiled in unprecedented detail in a new 3-D 'virtual fossil' model

Imperial College London

An early ancestor of the cockroach that lived around 300 million years ago is unveiled in unprecedented detail in a new three-dimensional 'virtual fossil' model, in research published today in the journal Biology Letters.

Scientists at Imperial College London have made a comprehensive 3D model of a fossilised specimen called Archimylacris eggintoni, which is an ancient ancestor of modern cockroaches, mantises and termites. This insect scuttled around on Earth during the Carboniferous period 359 - 299 million years ago, which was a time when life had recently emerged from the oceans to live on land.

The study reveals for the first time how Archimylacris eggintoni's physical traits helped it to thrive on the floor of Earth's early forests. The fossils of these creatures are normally between 2cm and 9cm in length and approximately 4cm in width.

The lead author of the study, Mr Russell Garwood, a PhD student from the Department of Earth Science and Engineering at Imperial College London, says:

"The Carboniferous period is sometimes referred to as the age of the cockroach because fossils of Archimylacris eggintoni and its relatives are amongst the most common insects from this time period. They are found all over the world. People joke about it being impossible to kill cockroaches and our 3D model almost brings this one back to life. Thanks to our 3D modelling process, we can see how Archimylacris eggintoni's limbs were well adapted for all terrains, as it was not only adept in the air but also very agile on the ground."

The researchers created their images using a CT scanning device, based at the Natural History Museum in London, which enabled them to take 3142 x-rays of the fossil and compile the images into an accurate 3D model, creating a 'virtual fossil' of the creature, using specially designed computer software. The scientists used the models to visualise the Archimylacris eggintoni's legs, antennae, mouth parts and body, which had never been seen by human eyes before.

Scientists had previously known that Archimylacris eggintoni had wings, which suggested the bug could fly. However, very few limbs of this species - or other roach-like insects from this era - have been preserved in fossils, making it hard for scientists to glean insights into their way of life.

In the new study, the researchers' computer model reveals that Archimylacris eggintoni had sticky structures on its legs called euplantulae. The researchers believe the euplantulae enabled Archimylacris eggintoni to stick to smooth surfaces such as leaves as they climbed across them, which may have helped them to lay their eggs above the ground in safer locations away from predators.

In addition, the scientists also discovered that Archimylacris eggintoni had claws at the base of its legs, which helped it to climb rough surfaces like trees, so that it could perch above the forest floor for safety or find alternate sources of food higher up.

The 3D model also reveals how Archimylacris eggintoni's legs could help it to run fast. The team noted that the legs were at a low angle to the body and fairly long, which they believe helped it to move quickly even when the terrain was difficult or uneven.

The scientists also reveal Archimylacris eggintoni's mouthparts, called mandibles, which helped it to grind up its food. The team say the mandibles are similar in appearance to modern day cockroach mandibles, suggesting they ate similar food, munching on decaying leaf and insect matter as it scurried from place to place.

Mr Garwood adds: "We now think this ancient ancestor of the cockroach spent most of the day on the forest floor, living in and eating lots of rotting plant and insect matter, which was probably the bug equivalent of heaven. We think it could have used its speed to evade predators and its climbing abilities to scale trees and lay eggs on leaves, much in the same way that modern forest cockroaches do today."

In the future, the researchers will use their computer modelling technique to study other fossilised creatures from the Carboniferous period. They plan to learn more about spider-like creatures called the harvestmen and another species called Camptophyllia, which has yet to be classified by scientists.

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Colin Smith
Press Officer
Imperial College London
Email: cd.smith@imperial.ac.uk
Tel: +44 (0)207 594 6712
Out of hours duty press officer: +44 (0)7803 886 248

1. Download the 3D model of the Archimylacris eggintoni from YouTube at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mN1RHlfsuxQ

Please credit 3D model to "Imperial College London and the Natural History Museum"

2. Download an image of the Archimylacris eggintoni https://fileexchange.imperial.ac.uk/files/da067e62acc/Figure%202.jpg Please credit image to "Imperial College London and the Natural History Museum"

3. "X-ray micro-tomograph of Carboniferous stem-Dictyoptera: new insights into early insects" Biology Letters Journal, April issue. Russell Garwood (1), Mark Sutton (1)

(1) Department of Earth Science and Engineering, Imperial College London, SW7 2AZ, UK

Link to paper: https://fileexchange.imperial.ac.uk/files/9e52cceea7/RSBL20100199.pdf

5. About Imperial College London

Consistently rated amongst the world's best universities, Imperial College London is a science-based institution with a reputation for excellence in teaching and research that attracts 14,000 students and 6,000 staff of the highest international quality.

Innovative research at the College explores the interface between science, medicine, engineering and business, delivering practical solutions that improve quality of life and the environment - underpinned by a dynamic enterprise culture.

Since its foundation in 1907, Imperial's contributions to society have included the discovery of penicillin, the development of holography and the foundations of fibre optics. This commitment to the application of research for the benefit of all continues today, with current focuses including interdisciplinary collaborations to improve health in the UK and globally, tackle climate change and develop clean and sustainable sources of energy.

Website: www.imperial.ac.uk

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