Amber is a window into the past. Entomologist George Poinar Jr. peered into a 30 million-year-old piece of Dominican amber and spotted something rare: an extinct fossilized cockroach, complete with sperm cells. In a statement on Monday, Oregon State University called it "the first fossilized roach sperm" ever discovered. So yay?
Amber is what you get when sticky tree resin hardens and fossilizes over time. It's famous for preserving unlucky flora and fauna that wandered into its path. Amber gives us remarkable glimpses into life long ago, from exquisite flowers to bizarre bugs. Poinar has an extensive resume of amber discoveries and continues to turn out fascinating finds.
The fossilized cockroach is about three-tenths of an inch (7 millimeters) long. "It has long spines, used for defense, on its legs, especially the hind legs," said Poinar. "Also of interest is the sperm bundle containing spermatozoa with dark acrosomes, structures covering the head of the sperm, since fossil sperm are rare." The sperm cells were found at the tip of the roach's abdomen.
Poinar named the roach species Supella dominicana. Curiously, its closest modern relatives are found in Asia and Africa, far away from the Dominican Republic. This presents a bit of a mystery. Said Poinar, "So what caused these cockroaches to become extinct when it is so difficult to get rid of them today?" That's an open question.
Cockroaches don't have the greatest reputation among humans. They're unwelcome house guests associated with filth and the spread of germs. Don't expect experts to crack this amber open to attempt to retrieve those sperm cells. This roach is history. Said Poinar, "Many might say that the best place for a cockroach is entombed in amber."