Of all the prehistoric creatures we found trapped in amber, we would never have expected a snail.
But this is exactly what paleontologists have found – so perfectly preserved that their delicate shell is intact and prehistoric soft snail tissue has been observed for the first time. A second, less well-preserved snail shell is also in the same amber piece.
Wrapped in 99 million year old amber from Myanmar, the snails date back to the Cretaceous, as some of the most popular dinosaurs in the world, such as T. Rex Velociraptor and Triceratops trod the earth.
Their morphology suggests that they are ancestors of the Cyclophoridae family of land snails. This makes them not only the oldest snails ever found in amber, but also the oldest in Asia occurring Cyclophoraidea.
Snails are, as you probably know, exceedingly fragile. Their bodies are soft and mushy, and their exoskeletons ̵
Some have survived on the fossil record, but snails preserved in amber are exceedingly rare.
This piece, which was purchased in 2016 by a private fossil collector, is 70 million years older than any other identified soft tissue of the snail date. And it's pretty extraordinary – including the head, foot and eye stalk of a teenager.
"Ancient tree resin has extraordinary conservation potential and captures the finest details of fossil organisms that are in perfect 3-D space for millions of years – so much so that they look like they were trapped in the resin yesterday," says Paleontologist Jeffrey Stilwell of Monash University in Australia told John Pickrell under National Geographic .
As the snail is so young, it is difficult to identify, although it has several morphological features similar to those of fossil and living Cyclophoridae species, such as a lid, a kind of "lid" of the snail around its shell to seal.
Perhaps more interesting, the snail was probably alive when she was trapped in amber, her body stretched and distorted and there was a bubble around her head.
"The soft parts of the snail are very dilated, and this could be a last attempt to escape in vain," the researchers write in their work.
"Given the fact that the snail was encased in tree resin during its lifetime, this could be responsible for the pronounced distortion in the preserved soft tissues."
The probable consequence of events, it was hypothesized, was that the tiny snail came crawling away with its eye outstretched as the resin began to engulf it. It reached out to escape, and then the resin flowed around his body.
Once trapped, the snail leaked air, possibly from a lung within its shell, which gushed outward and darkened her head.
Although this is not conducive to identification, the fact of the snail's existence is an astonishing complement to the incredible finds that were made in Myanmar about 99 million years ago in recent years.
Earlier discoveries include a dinosaur tail covered in fine feathers, the first ever found; a really peculiar arachnida with a long, whip-like tail; a small prehistoric "antagonist" of a species that died with the dinosaurs; the oldest known chameleon in the world; a "vampire ant" with a metal tip on the head; prehistoric frogs; and a baby snake.
The amber snail is now in the collection of the Dexu Institute of Paleontology in Chaozhou, China.
And the paper that describes it has been published in the journal Cretaceous Research .