A 4,000-year-old insect species never known to exist in the UK may have been native to the British Isles thousands of years ago.
Natural History Museum Senior Curator of insects Max Barclay discovered that a perfectly preserved pair of insects donated to his collection in the 1970s were almost 4,000 years old, a species never known to exist in the UK.
The Oak Capricorn beetles (Cerambyx) were found in a fragment of an ancient oak tree submerged in a peat bog. The farmer separated the wood to study the 7cm-long insects, which have long, thread-like antennae with distinctive curves. He suspected they could be an invasive species because they were in very good condition. He donated them to the Natural History Museum for further investigation.
These two insects have remained a natural history mystery until now. Tiny samples of both insects and wood were sent to the laboratory for radiocarbon dating. Tests showed that wood and insects date back approximately 3,785 years.
As such, rather than being a new species to the UK, these insects may have once been endemic to the British Isles, but died out thousands of years ago.
“These insects, older than The Tudors, older than the Roman occupation of Britain, even older than the Roman Empire, were chewing on the inside of that piece of wood when the Pharaohs were building the pyramids in Egypt. It’s tremendously exciting.”he says.
Max believes the Capricorn Oak beetles found today in Southern and Central Europe may have disappeared in the UK due to climate change.
“This is an insect that has been associated with warmer climates and probably existed in Britain 4,000 years ago because the climate was warmer and it became extinct as the climate cooled and destroyed habitats. Now there are indicators of this with global warming. he may return to England in the future.”
“Holding something that seems to have been taken yesterday but is actually a few thousand years old can provide a new perspective on the weather and forest conditions at the end of the Bronze Age. This pair of insects opens a window into the ancient past and the changes climate change holds for the future.”
Reference: Natural History Museum. January 28, 2021