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Surprise, surprise: Beetle is unchanged for 20 million years – why IS this a “surprising” find?

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General view of the modern Helophorus sibiricus and its newly discovered Early Miocene fossil counterpart. The close-ups show the species-specific granulation of the pronotum in both the recent specimen (top) and the fossil (bottom), one of the characteristics that allowed a reliable identification of the 20-million-year-old specimen. (Credit: Martin Fikáček)

Re this surprising story: “Living Species of Aquatic Beetle Found in 20-Million-Year-Old Sediments” (ScienceDaily, Oct. 6, 2011), about which more below:

Should revenue-hungry governments start taxing the use of “surprising” in science media releases when the circumstance is actually kind of normal? Just today, this unrelated release sailed through here: “Older than thought: Lacewings at 120 million years ago” Dozens stacked up behind, and doubtless dozens more ahead.

Alternatively, journalists should  try writing that way generally. How about

– News flash! Mine reopened due to rising ore prices. Economist says the recent jobless rate drop is surprising.

– News flash! New principal institutes “Do homework, no excuses” rule at district high school. Educator says the recent failure rate drop is surprising.

– News flash! Buggsy Plug sent up for 25 years in multiple murders [2 years ago]. Sociologist says the recent murder rate drop is surprising.

Anything at all is surprising if you can’t accept a cause and effect relationship. If evolution is rare and occurs in short bursts, and stasis is the norm, then the typical outcome will be that existing life forms are “older than thought.” If that’s a problem for someone, he’ll consider it surprising.

Just like some people would see no connection between “Mine reopened due to rising ore prices” and a drop in the jobless rate, especially if their political action group is committed to the belief that only bloody revolution would solve the problem.

Anyway, the beetle:

A study of an Early Miocene fossil from southern Siberia performed by an international team of researchers, from the National Museum in Prague, Voronezh State University and the Museum of Natural History in London, led to the surprising find that the fossil belongs to a species of aquatic beetles which is still alive today and widely distributed in Eurasia.

The Siberian fossil provides new data for the long-lasting debate among scientists about the average duration of an insect species. It was originally estimated to be ca. 2-3 million years based on the available fossil record, but slowly accumulating data begin to show that such an estimate is an oversimplification of the problem. Recently, evolutionary trees dated using molecular clocks suggested that some insect species are rather young, originating during the Ice Ages, but others may have been able to survive the last 10-20 million years until today. The long-living species had to survive the massive changes of the Earth’s climate during the last millions of years — how they managed to do so is another question for scientists to address.

A large missing piece for the acceptance of long-living insects as a general phenomenon and for understanding the reasons for survival of the particular species is the scarcity of the fossils of such species.

Yes, but there is also a large scale unwillingness among researchers to accept the idea as a starting point and look for explanations that go beyond the fog created by multiple uses of “surprising.”

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