BACKGROUND: Dispersal is essential for terrestrial organisms living in disjunct habitats and constitutes a significant challenge for the evolution of wingless taxa. Springtails (Collembola), the sister-group of all insects (with Diplura), are reported since the Lower Devonian and are thought to have originally been subterranean. The order Symphypleona is reported since the early Cretaceous with genera distributed on every continent. This distribution implies an ability to disperse over oceans, however symphypleonan Collembola have never been reported in marine water contrary to other springtail orders. Despite being highly widespread, modern springtails are rarely reported in any kind of biotic association. Interestingly, the fossil record has provided occasional occurrences of Symphypleona attached by the antennae onto the bodies of larger arthropods. RESULTS: Here, we document the case of a ~ 16 Ma old fossil association: a winged termite and ant displaying not some, but 25 springtails attached or in close proximity to the body. The collembola exhibit rare features for fossils, reflecting their courtship and phoretic behaviours. By observing the modes of attachment of springtails on different arthropods, the sex representation and ratios in springtail antennal anatomies in new and previously reported cases, we infer a likely mechanism for dispersal in Symphypleona. By revealing hidden evidence of modern springtail associations with other invertebrates such as ants and termites, new compelling assemblages of fossil springtails, and the drastic increase of eusocial insects' abundance during the Cenozoic (ants/termites comprising more than a third of insects in Miocene amber), we stress that attachment on winged castes of ants and termites may have been a mechanism for the worldwide dispersal of this significant springtail lineage. Moreover, by comparing the general constraints applying to the other wingless soil-dwelling arthropods known to disperse through phoresy, we suggest biases in the collection and observation of phoretic Symphypleona related to their reflexive detachment and infer that this behaviour continues today. CONCLUSIONS: The specific case of tree resin entrapment represents the (so far) only condition uncovering the phoretic dispersal mechanism of springtails - one of the oldest terrestrial arthropod lineages living today.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
- Dominican amber
- Social insects