Despite the large number of insect species, their fossils are found in only a few deposits scattered across the globe and through time. Their fossilisation has been facilitated by their external skeleton. One of the various forms of fossilisation, inclusion in amber, was popularised in a 1990s science-fiction film, Jurassic Park.
Ongoing research into insect fossils has enabled us to assemble one of the world’s biggest collections of inclusions in amber, as well as in Mesozoic and Tertiary lacustrine laminites. It currently comprises 30,000 insect fossils in lacustrine sediments and 20,000 in amber, 10% of which are types and figured specimens, mainly from France, as well as 600 fossils from various foreign localities.
A database for researchers is in the process of being created. It displays the fossils’ location, identity (order, family, genus, species) and their status (type, figured). For the time being, 5% of the collection is computerised. The insect fossil types and figured specimens are also included in the Invertebrate fossil type database of the Palaeontology unit. This database is connected to a bibliography of ancient publications.
The fossil insect collection is based on a historical collection from the 19th century, comprising some of the first insects ever described, circa 1830. Over the last 20 years it has increased more than tenfold. It comprises fossils from lacustrine sediments and amber, from all epochs since the Carboniferous (- 300 million years). The old collection mainly concerns the Upper Carboniferous, with the world’s largest series of insects from Commentry (Allier, France), including the famous giant dragonfly Meganeura monyi. This series consists mainly of stem groups of cockroaches, grasshoppers, crickets & locusts, dragonflies & damselflies and extinct groups. The collection contains hundreds of specimens.
The Commentry insects were harvested at the end of the 19th century, in open pit coalmines. The scientific publications began with C. Brongniart, from 1878 to 1893. Although spectacular, with the description of the giant dragonfly Meganeura monyi, this work was just the beginning of a new field of research. At the start of the 20th century, F. Meunier took over and established a great many taxa. The material later underwent many revisions, particularly by F. M. Carpenter, from 1943 to 1964, and by André Nel and Olivier Béthoux during the 2000s. This has led to a drastic reduction in the number of recognised species, and renewed consideration of the real affinities of these insects.
Because it is so well-preserved, the Commentry material is favoured by authors of popular science literature. In addition, uncertainties about the affinities of several of these very old species regularly bring scientists to revise this material, in the light of recent discoveries in other deposits.
The collection enables us to carry out research in systematics and Insect phylogeny, as well as biogeography and palaeoecology. The current studies are proceeding at an average rate of 25-30 publications per year. Prof. Brongniart contributed greatly to the growth of the collection, between 1880 and 1895. The recent additions are the result of voluntary research conducted between 1980 and 2000, and excavations financed by Lafarge-Granulat in an amber deposit in the Paris region. Excavations are under way in new deposits from the Upper Permian in Lodève, and the Lower Cretaceous in Charentes and Provence.
André Nel, Professor and co-Loan Manager
Tel. +33(0)1 40 79 33 85
Olivier Béthoux, Lecturer and co-Loan Manager
Tel. +33(0)1 40 79 30 61