Extinct Termites Caught Mid-Sexy Time In 38-Million-Year-Old Amber

Some 38 million years ago, a termite couple snuck off to engage in some prehistoric sexy time, only to be swamped in tree resin and immortalized in amber for eternity. How embarrassing. 

This incredible 38-million-year-old amber specimen was unearthed at the Yantarny mine in Kaliningrad, Russia. Inside the clear specimen, you can see two members of the extinct species Electrotermes affinis engaging in courtship behavior.

“Termite fossils are very common, but this piece was unique because it contains a pair. I have seen hundreds of fossils with termites enclosed, but never a pair.” Dr Aleš Buek, study author and head of the Laboratory of Insect Symbiosis at the Czech Academy of Sciences, said in a statement.

The position of the pair is unusual – and not just because they were trying to “spice things up” in the bedroom. 

Today’s termites typically engage in courtship behavior called “tandem running,” in which they line up vertically with the male’s mouth touching the female’s backside. However, this unfortunate duo became stuck side-by-side with the female’s mouthparts touching the tip of the male’s abdomen.

Was this just how extinct termite species did things? Or did their awkward death change their behavior?

The full-sized image of the image above.
Image credit: N. Mizumoto et al/PNAS (2024)

To find out, researchers at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology carried out a few experiments involving living termites. The team laid out mating pairs of termites on sticky paper to imitate the process of becoming stuck in gloopy tree resin, hoping to see how their behavior became altered. 

The experiments revealed that being stuck on the tape resulted in the mating pairs ending up in a very similar position to the pair that were entrapped in the amber. When the sticky situation emerged, the partners did not split from each other – isn’t that cute? – but the female did turn around and move towards the male, resulting in this unexpected position. 

“If a pair encounters a predator, they usually escape but I think on a sticky surface they do not realize the danger and get trapped,” explained Dr Nobuaki Mizumoto, currently working as an assistant professor at Auburn University.

            

Famed for its gorgeous orange color, amber is simply fossilized tree resin. It’s fairly remarkable how many amber specimens have been found with wildlife entrapped within them, providing modern-day observers with a crystal clear insight into their forms and behavior. 

It isn’t always just bugs, either. Scientists have discovered examples of extinct baby bird feathers stuck in ancient amber, as well as 50-million-year-old mushrooms growing out of an ant’s butthole. Isn’t nature beautiful sometimes?

The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 

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