The Mosquito That Produced More Than A Little Buzz

Paleontologists can get excited about fossils even if they are not dinosaurs, mammoths and hominids though this story has a Jurassic Park dino connection which helps. In this case several tiny fossil mosquitos had scientists abuzz in 2013.  Fossils of mosquitoes are known from amber (fossilized tree sap) but are extremely rare in sedimentary rock for obvious reasons.  However, it isn’t the rarity of the fossil itself that made headlines. It was what researches discovered in the mosquito’s remains.

Here are some headlines produced from this discovery.  See if you can tell from the headlines what they found.

Blood Cells Found in Fossilized Mosquito (OneSquareLight blog)

This week, a droplet of blood from 40 million years ago was discovered “frozen in time” inside a fossilized mosquito in a riverbed in Montana. (Sudan Vision Daily)

Mosquito fossil with blood-filled belly discovered (Japan Times) 

Unprecedented Blood-Filled Mosquito Fossil Raises Questions Over Evolutionary Dating Methods  (Christian New Network) 

Bloody Mosquito Fossil Supports Recent Creation (Institute for Creation Research)

Rare, blood-engorged mosquito fossil found  (Fox News)

First Fossil Mosquito Found Filled with Blood (Answers in Genesis)

An Anopheles mosquito enjoying a sip of human blood to the extent that it is over extended itself and has to exude some of the blood.  Image: Wikipedia.
An Anopheles mosquito enjoying a sip of human blood to the extent that it is over extended itself and has to exude some of the blood. Image: Wikipedia.

You would not be wrong if you got the impression from these headlines that what was found was a mosquito with a bellyful of blood including the cells contained in that blood.  Many of the article conjured up images of Jurassic Park where DNA was extracted from the dino-blood that the mosquitoes drank.  But these headlines are far too sensational.

Here are two additional headlines from popular science sources:

Fossil Mosquito Found with Bellyful  (Scientific American) in the first line of the article they state that the fossil was found to contain iron in the fossilized belly of a mosquito indicative of its likely last meal of blood.

The Scientists: Fossilized Mosquito Blood Meal  (The Scientist) The article begins: “Researchers have discovered a 46-million-year-old female mosquito containing the remnants of the insect’s final blood meal.”

Lastly, how about the title of the actual research article on which all of these other reports are based:  Hemoglobin-derived porphyrins preserved in a Middle Eocene blood-engorged mosquito. (Proceedings of the National Academy of Science)

This is a picture of the 46 million year old fossilized mosquito. The iron bearing compounds were identified just in the abdomen area suggesting they are the result of the breakdown of blood products.
This is a picture of the 46 million year old fossilized mosquito. The iron bearing compounds were identified just in the abdomen area suggesting they are the result of the breakdown of blood products.

Oh, yeah, that last title really grabs you doesn’t it!?

So what is it about this little mosquito that created so much buzz? These latter headlines are a bit more accurate even if they sound far less exciting.  What scientists found was a high abundance of iron and iron containing compounds in the fossilized abdomen of a female mosquito and a lack of similar iron compounds in the male fossil abdomens.  Did they find blood cells? Absolutely not!

They found evidence of porphyrin molecules which they reasonably deduced are the degraded remnants of former hemoglobin molecules which are found in red blood cells of vertebrates.  Using some very precise instruments that allow them to examine tiny portions of the fossil they were able to show that these iron-beading organic molecules were found in the abdomens but not in the surrounding rock matrix.  So not only are the scientists involved NOT claiming to have found red blood cells in the fossil they aren’t even saying they have found hemoglobin but rather only the incredibly stable biomolecular remains (porphyrin) of a small portion of the hemoglobin molecule found in blood cells.

You can probably tell from the headlines above that the details of this fossil find haven’t stopped creationists from claiming this fossil as further proof that the world must be young. Why? Because the preservation of blood, in their mind, should be shocking given the fossil is said to be 46 million years old.

Quite the contrary, I think this fossil is fascinating and it is wonderful to know that we now have the technology to finally be able to analyze the molecules found in fossils such as this tiny mosquito.  What they found is not at all shocking. As the figure below shows they found porphyrin molecules which were already well known to be able to survive millions of years under the right conditions. Crude oil and shale oil and even coal often contain measurable porphyrin even after the rest of the organic molecules of an organism have been chemically transformed into long hydrocarbon chains. So what they found in the position of the abdomen of this mosquito is not new to science at all. However it is still cool to find it in a specific fossil thus allowing us to confirm blood-sucking behavior of a long dead insect.

A portion of Figure 1 of Briggs commentary on the mosquito find in the journal PNAS (see references).  Notice that hemoglobin has decayed and only the most stable portions of that large molecule are left in the mosquito and even they are likely chemically altered.
A portion of Figure 1 of Briggs commentary on the mosquito find in the journal PNAS (see references). Notice that hemoglobin has decayed and only the most stable portions of that large molecule are left in the mosquito and even they are likely chemically altered.

Preservation context is a problem for young earth creationism:

I attended a conference around the time of this discovery in which a young earth advocate referred to this blood-filled mosquito as evidence against millions of years.  As I just explained, the molecules detected in the fossil are not a problem for an ancient earth. Rather, the question for young earth advocates is why is this the only discernable biomolecules found in this fossil. Why are the biomolecules degraded to the point of not existing or taking on different bonding structures allowing them to be so stable? If this fossil really is only 4000 years old sure dozens of different biomolecules of this mosquito should still be detectable. Why is no trace of DNA found in this fossil?  Strangely, from the creationist perspective, the biomolecules that remain are extremely modified as expected if they had been preserved for millions of years.

Furthermore the geological context for preservation makes no sense at all in the young earth model of earth’s history.  Why?  The authors note that the chance of this mosquito being preserved in the fossil record is vanishingly small because blood-engorged mosquitoes are “like a balloon ready to burst” and so easily disintegrate. They question the secular proposal of a mosquito getting preserved in is a placid lake in which the mosquito falls and sinks down to the anoxic (oxygen-lacking) bottom where if gets covered by a rain of very fine particles over time.

However, The layers of shale rock that these mosquitoes are found in said by young earth creationist to have been laid down either near the end of the global flood or may not even be Flood rocks but deposits in lakes after the Flood. If this former is correct, how could such a fragile insect be preserved in such a setting?  Could a mosquito have been flying around for several months above a world covered in water and then fall into the global ocean and get preserved in very fine sediments that look like the bottom of a fresh-water lake?  If the mosquitoes died early on in the flood year how did their bodies survive months of sloshing around the world while the 10,000 feet of layers of sediments below where they were deposited?

These fossils are best explained by a calm and slow series of events rather than global catastrophe.

As some of these headlines suggest, many creationist commentators are quick to interpret these fossil finds probably without having read the original papers, which you can read yourself through the links provided below, and certainly without considering the context of their preservation. When the details of the find  and the context of how this mosquito was preserved are considered there is no reason for any creationist to be gleeful. Unfortunately, as a soundbite, showing a fossil mosquito and then announcing that blood was found in it makes a compelling soundbite that is hard to refute in 40 words or less.   Unfortunately I have just passed 1200 words and I feel I’ve barely done this topic justice.

Video version of this blog post: 


A mosquito’s last supper reminds us not to underestimate the fossil record.  D. G. Briggs.  This is a commentary on the main article in PNAS.  2013.  PNAS 2013

Hemoglobin-derived porphyrins preserved in a Middle Eocene blood-engorged mosquito.  2013. D. Greenwalt, Y. Goreva, S. Siljestrom, T. Rose, and R. Harbach.  Published online before print October 14, 2013, doi:10.1073/pnas.1310885110
PNAS October 14, 2013

6 thoughts on “The Mosquito That Produced More Than A Little Buzz

  1. Joel, I agree that YECs often jump on things like this without even reading or understanding the original papers. You also make the good point that YECs seem oblivious to the fact that IF blood was actually preserved in this fossil ‘skeeter’, they’d have to explain why many other organic compounds and soft tissues were not also preserved. Of course, this applies to their claims about dino soft tissues in general, and how they supposedly prove a young earth. Aside from the controversial nature of many of these claims, the fact is that the vast majority of Mesozoic fossils, and all Paleozoic fossils, are devoid of soft tissues, and instead are routinely well fossilized (replaced with other minerals). This makes no sense in the YEC view, since if as they claim all fossils were a few thousand years old then largely unaltered soft tissues and DNA should be common and abundant in most if not all fossils (even Paleozoic ones), which is clearly not the case, even tho we do find this in remains several thousand years old (like Egyptian mummies) or even Pleistocene fossils tens of thousands of years old.
    By the way, I’ve had considerable interactions with Marian Schweitzer (the most active advocate of dinosaur soft tissues) and one of her strongest detractors (Tom Kaye). Tom has shown that at least many of her “soft tissue” claims relate to biofilm coverings or replacements, not original soft tissue. Moreover, according to Kaye Mary’s alleged “blood cells” are factually biofilm covered iron framboids (tiny iron spheres) which can mimic blood cells under the microscope, which may be why she no longer talks about fossil red blood cells. Still other alleged soft tissues relate to likely contamination. But regardless if any soft tissues are sometimes preserved in Mesozoic fossils (under exceptional preservational conditions), it seems clear that YECs have no plausible explanation for why they are not common and abundant in most if not all fossils, if their young-earth view is correct. In short, as adamant and gleeful as many YECs are about alleged fossil soft tissues, if they gave the matter a little more thought they would realize that the claims actually backfire on them. And for the record, Mary S is not a creationist, and insists that her conclusions do not support YECism.

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  2. By the way, when I say Paleozoic fossils are devoid of soft tissues, I mean original soft tissues lacking thorough mineral replacement. Occasionally some soft tissues (like trilobite gills) are preserved in Paleozoic fossils, but only in a well mineralized state, not as still soft or largely intact original tissues. Sadly, YECs often confused the two, even tho the distinction is important. For example, in the following ICR article Brian Thomas gives a chart of supposed documented fossil soft tissue references, even tho a large number concern normally fossilized/mineralized tissues, while others are largely irrelevant things like dinosaur skin impressions. Still others have been retracted, well refuted, or at least disoyted by others.
    I also want to clarify that while I have had some interactions with Mary S on the dinosaur soft tissue issue, I have had more extensive discussions with Tom Kaye, who keeps closely abreast of these issues and does a lot of original research. Most of my interactions with Mary took place when she was writing a book about dinosaurs, and I helped her write the chapter on dinosaur tracks. The book has recently been published nd is entitled Dinosaurs: How We Know What We Know.

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  3. What does disoyted mean? lol
    That said it strikes me as very odd that anyone would believe popular media on any science claim since they not only sensationalize finds they will hide facts that they do not like as well. Seeing how popular media is entirely bias driven it is hard to take them seriously on anything.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I meant “disputed”. Jimmie, I agree with your comments. Another problem is that many “science writers” even for major news outlets have little science background.


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