Contrary to what’s been portrayed in Hollywood films, scientists have never actually been able to recover traces of blood from a preserved insect. This incredible fossil of a 46 million-year-old engorged mosquito has now changed that. But don’t get your hopes up about resurrecting extinct species.
Unlike Jurassic Park, this mosquito wasn’t trapped in amber. Rather it was discovered in oil shale in northwestern Montana. When it died, it quickly fell into fine anaerobic sediment, allowing for this pristine preservation.
Also unlike Jurassic Park, this mosquito was alive after the age of the dinosaurs, some 19 million years after the end of the Cretaceous — an era paleontologists refer to as the Eocene.
Also also, unlike Jurassic Park, scientists know that DNA molecules are too complex and fragile to survive fossilization. DNA also has a very short shelf life. So you can put your cloning kits away.
The Last Blood Meal
But that doesn’t mean other large molecules, like those big enough to indicate the presence of blood, can’t survive fossilization.
Indeed, after taking a closer look at this particular fossil, a team of paleontologists led by Dale Greenwalt decided to run some tests on what looked like blood inside its abdomen. Their first scan revealed high levels of iron ions — a mineral associated with blood.
Then, after performing mass spectroscopy on the sample to get a more precise sense of its chemical makeup, the team found organic compounds that indicated the presence of a substance called heme, a molecule that allows hemoglobin in blood to carry oxygen. It’s the same compound that gives blood its red color.
The paleontologists say it’s “incontrovertible evidence” of heme, and by consequence, hemoglobin in the mosquito.
So, while we can't use these traces of blood to clone an extinct species, the discovery does tell us a bit about the behavior of mosquitoes that lived 46 million year ago — and it doesn't appear that these bastards have changed very much.
Read the entire study at PNAS: “Hemoglobin-derived porphyrins preserved in a Middle Eocene blood-engorged mosquito.”