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You Have to See These Fossilized Insects

Digitizing the Georg Statz Collection of 25-million-year-old insects

The Statz Collection includes about 5,000 fossilized insects.

 

The world needs to see these amazing fossilized insects. Luckily, they’re in the process of being digitized with a grant from the National Science Foundation. That means detailed photographs and all the information about them will be available online for researchers around the world to access.

A microscopic wasp (Apanteles macrophthalmus) from the Statz Collection. This is the holotype for this species, which means this is the exact fossil used to describe this species, and is the best example of it.

It’s happening now in the Invertebrate Paleontology Departmentinvertebrates as in creatures without a backbone (like snails, crabs, sea stars, and such), and paleontology as in the study of fossils.

These fossilized insects are part of the Statz Collection — about 5,000 specimens collected by Georg Statz in the 1920s and 30s in Germany. They’re 25-million-year-old compression fossils, which means they’ve been buried in sediment and completely flattened over time. That’s one of the two most common ways that insects can be fossilized. (The other way is being trapped in amber.)

The collection includes a staggering 899 type specimens. A type is the specimen (or series of specimens) used when describing a new species, usually the first individual of its kind known to science.

“They’re beautiful, and they’re scientifically interesting. You can learn a lot from compression fossils,” said Assistant Collections Manager Lindsay Walker. “For instance, the wings are often very important when you’re describing fossil insect species, and fortunately, they preserve very well in two dimensions.”

a photo Lindsay Walker holding an insect fossil
Assistant Collections Manager Lindsay Walker holds a fossilized dragonfly wing from the Statz Collection.

The fossils themselves are stunning, and the story behind them is equally intriguing. School teacher Georg Statz collected them from the Rott Formation in Germany while on summer vacations with his family. And after years of fossil-hunting (remember, there are 5,000 of these specimens), he attended the University of Cologne to get a Ph.D. in paleontology and follow his passion. But in the midst of World War II, he had to hide the collection from destruction and flee the country.

Unlike many other museum and university collections, Georg Statz’s collection survived the war. However, Statz never saw them again, as he died before returning home to post-war Germany. It is said that on his deathbed he learned that his precious fossil insect collection had survived thanks to the heroic efforts of museum and university staff. The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County acquired the collection in 1955.

When this impressive collection is digitized, people from all over the world can study and admire these long-dead insects, thanks to a school teacher with a passion for paleontology and the dedicated team in the NHMLA Invertebrate Paleontology Department.

a photo of a small fossil. it looks like a sandy colored coin with a tiny black dot on it. the black dot is the fossil insect
Many fossilized insects are incredibly tiny. The dark dot in the middle of the sandy-colored material is the fossilized insect. You need a microscope to see it properly.

 

 

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