Volume XIII: The tertiary insects of North America




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That creatures so minute and fragile as insects, creatures which can so feebly withstand the changing seasons as to live, so to speak, but a moment, are to be found fossil, engraved, as it were, upon the rocks or embedded in their hard mass, will never cease to be a surprise to those unfamiliar with the fact. "So fragile," says Quinet, "so easy to crush, you would readily believe the insect one of the latest beings produced by nature, one of those which has least resisted the action of time; that its type, its genera, its forms, must have been ground to powder a thousand times, annihilated by the revolutions of the globe, and perpetually thrown into the crucible. For where is its defense? Of what value its antennae, its shield, its wings of gauze, against the commotions and the tempests which change the surface of the earth? When the mountains themselves are overthrown and the seas uplifted, when the giants of structure, the mighty quadrupeds, change form and habit under the pressure of circumstances, will the insect withstand them? Is it it which will display most character in nature? Yes! The universe flings itself against a gnat. Where will it find refuge? In its very diminutiveness, its nothingness."

The pages and plates of the present volume bear testimony to the fact that our tertiary strata have preserved remnants of an ancient host, so varied in structure, so closely also resembling their brethren of to-day, that nearly or quite every prevalent family-group in the entire range of the insect-world has already been demonstrated to have then existed. While often fragmentary and crushed, sometimes beyond recognition, a not insignificant number are sufficiently preserved for us to repopulate the past; sometimes, too, are they preserved in such a wonderful manner that in tiny creatures with a spread of wings scarcely more than a couple of millimeters one may count under the microscope the hairs fringing the wings.

In attempting thus to restore the past world of our insects, two or three general features have been forced upon my attention, which may well be mentioned here. One of them is the rernarkable fact that in hardly a single instance has the same species been found at two distinct localities. These localities, it is true, are in some instances separated by hundreds or even thousands of miles, and analogy with the present distribution of insects would lead us to expect more or less profound changes in passing from one to another. But at other times the distance is not great, or at any rate not great enough to make this a satisfactory reason. It is more probable that the beds in which they occur are not altogether synchronous; and we are led to believe that in the separation of horizons insects will give more precise and definite distinctions than may be gained by the study of the plant remains of the same beds. The data at our disposal are not yet sufficiently varied to enable us to speak with any confidence, but when the other groups of Florissant insects, not considered in the present volume, are worked out, and the new material that is at hand from the other principal localities have been fairly studied, it may be found that we are armed with a new weapon of attack in solving the immediate succession of the Tertiary series of the West in their finer subdivisions.

Another point to which attention may be drawn is the very considerable number and quite extraordinary proportion of species which so far are represented by a single specimen. Leaving out of consideration certain marvelously prevalent forms in the beds of Florissant, such as certain Formicidae, Alydina, etc., one working these beds, from which many thousands of insects have already been taken, may confidently expect that every third or fourth specimen will prove something new. A quite similar statement can be made of all, or all but one, of the other localities where insects have been found in our Tertiary deposits: it surely indicates that with all the rich results of the explorations so far undertaken we are only upon the threshold of our possible knowledge. We find a richness of fauna far exceeding anything before supposed possible.

The interest of the Tertiary fauna is further enhanced by the discovery that no inconsiderable proportion of the species in this fauna must be referred to genera not now extant. Granted that our knowledge of the subtropical forms of this continent (with which as a whole at least our Florissant fauna seems to be akin) is much too meager to be of great service; granted also that in many cases we are forced to establish new genera upon what would be regarded among recent animals as too slender grounds : it is nevertheless true that an unexpectedly large number of forms can not be forced into modern genera already established; in many cases, throughout whole groups, kindred differences from modern types are found which indicate considerable changes of structure in the intervening epochs along parallel lines. In illustration of this we would call special attention to the differences observed in the genera of plant-lice, and, in several places among other Hemiptera as well as among the Coleoptera, to the decided differences in the relative length of various members of the body. My own belief, which springs from the comparisons instituted in the study of this fauna, is that a much larger proportion of genera should really have been founded, and that, for every type which may turn up in Central American explorations of the near future identical with those now established upon the fossils alone, it will be necessary to separate from the familiar surroundings in which I have placed it some other of the insects from the same beds.

It should be stated that the larger part of the plates in this volume were engraved before the insects were studied, except in a cursory manner to separate the species; the insects are therefore not always properly grouped, and the legends upon the plates are in part inaccurate.

In the enumeration of the specimens at the end of the specific descriptions the numbers of the obverse and reverse of the same specimen are always connected by "and" without any intervening comma, and this typographical method is employed only for expressing this relation.

In the study of these extinct insects much assistance has been received from friends, to whom my cordial thanks are due; for valuable suggestions from the late Dr. J. L. LeConte, from Baron R. von Osten Sacken, Edward Burgess, Esq., and Drs. G. H. Horn and H. A. Hagen; for the open collections of the late G. D. Smith, Esq., and of Messrs. E. P. Austin and Samuel Henshaw; and for important aid in obtaining typical series of modern insects in various groups by Messrs. E. P. Austin, P. R. Uhler, E. P. Van Duzee, Edward Burgess, Dr. A. Forel, and most especially Mr. Samuel Henshaw.


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Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
USGS Unnumbered Series
Volume XIII: The tertiary insects of North America
Series title:
U.S. Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories
Year Published:
Government Printing Office
Publisher location:
Washington, D.C.
734 p.
Larger Work Type:
Larger Work Subtype:
USGS Unnumbered Series
Larger Work Title:
Report of the United States Geological Survey of the Territories
Canada, United States
British Columbia, Colorado, Ontario, Utah, Wyoming
Florissant, Fossil, Fort Kennedy, Quesnel, Scarboro
Other Geospatial:
Green River, Horse Creek, Lower White River, Nicola River, North Similkameen River, Nine Mile Creek, Tertiary Lake Basin
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