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New Species of Fossil Dragonfly Named for ID Proponent Michael Behe

Usually paleontologists discover new species of ancient organisms through fieldwork, literally digging them out of the dirt, or by studying the extensive fossil collections hidden in museum storage rooms. However, in rare cases a new species can even be discovered on the Internet. A colleague of mine discovered a new mayfly species in Baltic amber on eBay. 

Something similar happened to me seven years ago. It was July 2011 when I accidentally stumbled upon a photo of a beautiful fossil dragonfly on a website about fossils from Early Jurassic sediments on the English coast at Charmouth in Dorset. I immediately recognized that this specimen is not only remarkably well-preserved, but certainly represents an unknown species as well. 

The owner of this fossil happened to be the famous British fossil hunter and collector Chris Moore. I contacted Chris and asked him if I could borrow the fossil for a scientific description. He kindly agreed and we met at the Munich fossil show in November 2011, where he brought the fossil for me. So I could study this specimen in my lab under a binocular microscope, make microphotos of all the details, and prepare a large drawing with a special apparatus called drawing mirror or camera lucida. However, because of numerous other obligations and unexpected events, I had to postpone the preparation of the manuscript for publication of the discovery until recently.

What’s So Special About This Fossil?

This fossil is not just a beautiful new species of dragonfly, which lived about 191 million years ago. The perfectly preserved characters, especially of the wing venation, allowed an attribution of this fossil to a new genus and species of the extinct family Asiopteridae, which in turn belongs to the damsel-dragonfly grade within the insect order Odonata. This fossil happens to be by far the best preserved and first almost complete specimen of the Mesozoic family Asiopteridae, which was previously known only from isolated wings. 

Actually, it represents worldwide one of the most beautifully preserved and most complete fossil dragonflies from the Early Jurassic period known at all. It allowed body characters of Asiopteridae to be described for the first time, which include compound eyes that meet dorsally, robust thorax, legs with short spines, and very long leaf-like terminal appendages (cerci). The forewing venation features a short fusion of veins near the tip of the so-called discoidal cell, which is an absolutely unique character state within the order Odonata. This is now described for the first time, having never been observed in any of the approximately 6,500 species of fossil and recent damselflies and dragonflies. With an estimated wing span of 4.5 inches, it is also a relatively large odonate, especially for its era. It is a truly remarkable fossil.

Implications for Intelligent Design?

A study of the different anatomical features of this fossil and comparison with other fossil odonates revealed a very incongruent pattern of similarities. Such homoplasy is a ubiquitous phenomenon in systematic biology and does not readily align with a hierarchical system required by evolutionary classification. While surprising from the perspective of common ancestry, such incongruences would not be surprising from the perspective of common design. This suggests that the currently ruling paradigm of cladistic classification based on assumed common ancestry should be reconsidered in favor of a traditional phenetic classification based on maximum similarity. 

Giving the “Child” a Name

After the study was finished and the manuscript mostly written, I faced a final question: What name should the new genus and species receive? For the genus I had promised the owner of the fossil to name it after him. That was due to his kind agreement to make this fossil available for science and his commitment to later deposit his collection, including this fossil, in a projected museum in the area of Charmouth and Lyme Regis.

But what about the new species name? I could have named it liassicus after its age, or dorsetiensis after its provenance in Dorset. But I had another idea. 

Last year I had the honor of being featured in the documentary Revolutionary which celebrates the groundbreaking work of Professor Michael J. Behe of Lehigh University. A proponent of intelligent design theory, Behe won fame with his concept of irreducible complexity, especially evident in molecular machines of the cell including the iconic bacterial flagellum. His second book, The Edge of Evolution, with its fascinating elaboration of the waiting time problem, had a great influence on my own journey from neo-Darwinism to ID. 

So who deserved the honor of being the name patron of this remarkable new species? I did not have to think long. It had to be Michael Behe. Thus I decided to give it the name Chrismooreia michaelbehei, and to publish the description in BIO-Complexity, a journal open to intelligent design, where you can find it online in the first issue of this year’s volume.


Photo: Chrismooreia michaelbehei, by Günter Bechly, Biologic Institute, Redmond, WA.