Jurrasic, Solnhofen, Germany Specimen
The Odonata are known to be ancient insects. The oldest recognizable fossils of the group belong to the Protodonata, an ancestral group that is now extinct. The earliest fossils so far discovered come from Upper Carboniferous (Pennsylvanian) sediments in Europe formed about 325 million years ago. Like modern-day dragonflies, the Protodonata were fast-flying with spiny legs that may have assisted in capturing prey; their wingspan was up to 75 centimeters (30 inches). The group went extinct in the Triassic, about the time that dinosaurs began to appear.
Fossilized specimens of another group, the Protoanisoptera (family Meganeuridae), have been found in limestone at Elmo near Abilene, Kansas, USA. The Meganeuridae differed from modern Odonata in a number of ways -- they lacked a nodus (wing notch) and pterostigma (features of the wings) and were enormous compared to modern species. Fossils of these insects with seventy centimeter wingspans have been found in Commentry, France, and a fifty centimeter specimen was found in Bolsover in Derby, both in Carboniferous layers.
Though the Carboniferous specimens are the oldest fossils of this group found to date, they were not the first specimens to be discovered. The first Odonata fossils were found in sediments from the Lower Permian, over 250 million years old. These fossils are not huge monsters like the Carboniferous fossils, but belong to relatively small Protoanisopterans and Zygopterans (damselflies). The latter seem to have changed little in structure and appearance since then. However, it is currently a question of debate as to whether members of Protodonata and the earliest Odonata had aquatic larvae, as do all modern species, since no Paleozoic larvae fossils are known. Larvae do not exist as fossils before the Mesozoic. Some workers believe that Odonata adopted an aquatic larval stage during the Lower Permian, perhaps because their prey lived in aquatic habitats. In any event, several groups of Odonata existed by the Late Paleozoic, though only three members of this group survive today.
7.25 x 4.75 inches
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