Preserved remains of a mushroom, an insect, and a mystery mammal were discovered stuck together in the same itty bitty chunk of Baltic amber for around 50 million years. The nine-by-three-millimeter snippet contains a molted insect exoskeleton, a scaly gilled mushroom, and a single hair from an unknown mammal. The splendidly preserved mushroom is a member of an extinct genus and species unclassified until now, by OSU College of Science researcher George Poinar, Jr.
The fossilized amber reveals a prehistoric snapshot, taken during a time when dinosaurs had just gone extinct and mammals were increasing in diversity. In a recent OSU press release, Poinar explained, “From what we can see in this fossil, a tiny mushroom was bitten off, probably by a rodent, at the base of a tree. An insect, similar to a walking stick, was probably also trying to feed on the mushroom. It appears to have immediately jumped out of its skin and escaped, just as tree sap flowed over the remaining exoskeleton and a hair left behind by the fleeing rodent.”
Though not the only mushroom ever found preserved in amber, it is the first discovered in the extensive deposits surrounding the Baltic Sea. The amber there originated in European subtropical forests dominated by conifer trees and their goopy resins. Sometime later, the amber containing our trio eroded and was redeposited in marine sediments on the Samland Peninsula, today part of the Russian Federation.
Poinar’s paper discussing the specimen was published in last month’s issue of Fungal Biology. And since you’re wondering, Gerontomyces lepidotus gen. et sp. nov., the mushroom’s scientific name, loosely translates to “scaly old mushroom.” The rest of those absurd abbreviations are scientific shorthand for shiny, brand-new genus and species one so rarely finds occasion to use in print.
By Matthew Hunt