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Ancient Insect Camouflaged Itself Like Lichen

Artist drawing of moth in lichen
Xiaoran Zuo

Animals often evolve adaptations that allow them to hide from predators in their environments (we’re looking at you, Uroplatus Geckos). Proving that ancient insects took advantage of such trickery has been challenging to show—until now.

Specifically, researchers from China wanted to see if they could find an early example of insect-lichen mimicry or mimesis, a particularly hard task considering that lichen is very rare in the fossil record.

“As lichen models are almost absent in the fossil record of mimesis, it is still unclear as to when and how the mimicry association between lichen and insects first arose,” explains lead author Hui Fang, a Ph.D. student at the College of Life Sciences and Academy for Multidisciplinary Studies at Capital Normal University (CNU) in Beijing, China. “The key to answering this question is to find early examples of a lichen-like insect and a co-occurring lichen fossil.”

Which is precisely what they did.

After finding two Jurassic lacewing moths dating from about 165 million years ago, they found an example of lichen that had indeed been fossilized at the same time. After comparing the two, including measuring different features, they were able to conclude that the two were displaying mimesis.

“Our findings indicate that a micro-ecosystem consisting of lichens and insects existed 165 million years ago in Northeastern China,” concludes senior author Yongjie Wang, Associated Professor at the College of Life Sciences and Academy for Multidisciplinary Studies, CNU. “This adds to our current understanding of the interactions between insects and their surroundings in the Mesozoic Era, and implies that there are many more interesting insect relationships awaiting discovery.”

The work has been reported on the website, eLife.