A pair of perfectly-intact ‘mystery beetles’ found to be almost 4,000 years-old


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Natural History Museum Senior Curator of Insects Max Barclay has discovered that a pair of perfectly preserved beetles, donated to its collection in the 1970s, are almost 4,000 years old—and a species never known to have existed in the UK.

A pair of perfectly-intact ‘mystery beetles’ found to be almost 4,000 years-old
Credit: Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London

The Oak Capricorn Beetles (Cerambyx) were found in a piece of ancient oak wood that had been submerged in a peat bog. The farmer had been splitting the wood only to discover the three-inch-long beetles which have distinctive curved long, threadlike antennae. He suspected, because they were in such good condition, they may have been an invasive species. He donated them to the Natural History Museum for further research.

The pair remained a natural history mystery until now. Tiny samples of both the beetles and wood were sent off for radiocarbon dating which placed their age at 3,785 years old. So, rather than a species new to the UK, these beetles may once have been once endemic in the British Isles but have been extinct for thousands of years.

“These beetles are older than the Tudors, older than the Roman occupation of Britain, even older than the Roman empire, these beetles were alive and chewing the inside of that piece of wood when the pharaohs were building the pyramids in Egypt. It is tremendously exciting,” says Max.

He believes Oak Capricorn Beetles which exist today in Southern and Central Europe may have died out in Britain due to climate change. “This is a beetle that is associated with warmer climates, and possibly it existed in Britain 4,000 years ago because the climate was warmer and as the climate cooled and the habitats destroyed, it became extinct. Now with global warming, there are indications that it could return to Britain in the future.

It is quite extraordinary to hold something in your hand that looks like it was collected yesterday but is actually several millennia old can provide new insight into the weather and forest conditions in the late Bronze age. This paid of beetles provide a window into the ancient past and the changes climate change holds for the future.”

Source: Natural History Museum [January 28, 2021]

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