B.C. paleontologists discover new class of insect fossils associated to damselflies

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A group of insects that became extinct about 10 million years ago aren’t actually damselflies, says Bruce Archibald, a paleontologist at Simon Fraser University.

In an article published in a specialist journal at the end of February, Archibald and his colleagues name 16 new species and categorize them under their newly coined suborder Cephalozygoptera, which means “head damselflies”.

Both Zygoptera and Cephalozygoptera are now divisions under the command of flying insects, Odonata.

Archibald has spent three decades studying insect fossils on the Okanagan Highland, a 200-kilometer plateau that runs from southern BC to northern Washington interior that includes McAbee, BC and Republic, Wash.

Whetwhetaksa millerae, one of the newly discovered species, is named after the word whetwhetaks, which means dragonfly-like insects in the language of the Colville Indian Reservation near the Republic.

Full view of a fossilized Okanopteryx fraseri, one of the new species named by the SFU’s scientific team. (Copyright Zootaxa)

While doing research, team member Robert Cannings, retired curator of entomology at the Royal BC Museum, noticed something different about the insects’ heads.

“Those heads look really weird,” Archibald told Brady Strachan, the guest host of CBC’s Daybreak South. “We looked a lot more into it and found that it wasn’t damselflies at all.”

Wings of Okanagrion hobani, an extinct damselfly-like insect species categorized under the new suborder Cephalozygoptera, a name coined by paleontologist Bruce Archibald of Simon Fraser Univerity. Okanagrion hobani fossils were discovered in the McAbee fossil beds in the southern interior of BC. (Zootaxa)

Archibald says the confusion between Cephalozygoptera and Zygoptera was due to the German paleontologist Hermann Hagen, who said in 1858 that the oddly rounded head and eyes of Cephalozygoptera were caused by the distortion of the Zygoptera’s short and wide heads during fossilization.

Archibald’s team argued against this theory after reviewing 150 years of scientific literature.

“We found that this strange shape only occurs in this one group and not in any outside of that group,” he said. “When we saw the big picture, we found that this was indeed the true shape of their heads and that this was what set them apart from Damselflies.”

Paleontologist Bruce Archibald says scientists have confused Zygoptera, which means damselflies, with Cephalozygoptera for more than 150 years. (Bruce Archibald)

Cephalozygopteran insects existed in BC and Washington about 50 million years ago, but disappeared from the Western Hemisphere about 30 million years ago, while surviving in Europe and Asia.

Archibald says he’s glad to have solved a centuries-old academic mystery.

“It was like figuring out a huge puzzle, like doing a big sudoku,” he said. “It was very satisfying to find an answer and understand what was going on here.”

Tap the link below to hear Bruce Archibald’s interview Daybreak south::

Daybreak south7:57Paleontologists have discovered a new group of insects that lived in the Okanagan 50 million years ago

Paleontologists have discovered a new group of insects that lived in the Okanagan at 7:57 a.m. 50 million years ago