Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Oxford paleontologist identifies world's oldest spider web

I was lucky to meet a postgraduate student of renowned Oxford paleobiology, Martin Brasier. Brasier is known for his 2002 debate at NASA Ames center with UCLA’s Bill Schopf challenging Schopf’s claim to the oldest remains of life on earth. After meeting Dr. Brasier’s student, I decided to look for some related news…

Apparently, Brasier found the world’s oldest spider web encased in amber; the web is 140 million years old. The specimen was found by an amateur fossil hunter along the beaches of England’s south coast, while Brasier identified the fossil and its age. Arachnids seem to have been ensnaring their prey in silk webs since dinosaurs roamed the earth, testifying to the great evolutionary advantage of this tangled thread creation. Brasier even points out that thread strands are patterned the same way they are today.

The microscope picture shows tiny strands, fossilized vegetable matter, and dark spots which are thought to be burnt sap. Brasier comments that it’s not a perfect web, but I wonder if it’s just because it’s an old piece of fossil that might’ve been damaged and imperfectly preserved rather than imperfectly formed. Interesting questions also remain to be answered: why were there spider webs before the advent of flowering plants that would’ve given rise to an explosion of flying insects as prey? Brasier suggests that, "These webs were around in a conifer dominated world before flowering plants, but it is clear it was already gearing up for the huge diversity of flowers brought with them. The spiders appeared to be keeping up with the other evolutionary patterns in the insects." Is this suggesting that by some unknown, automatic mechanism, organisms can “anticipate” changes in its environment and other species?

Currently, Dr. Brasier’s student is conducting research in Newfoundland to identify the earliest animal.


- Bonnie Chien

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