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100 million-year-old sperm is the oldest ever found. And it's giant.

This artist's reconstruction shows the Cretaceous ostracod crustacean Myanmarcypris hui male (right) and female (left) during mating.
This artist's reconstruction shows the Cretaceous ostracod crustacean Myanmarcypris hui male (right) and female (left) during mating.
(Image: © Dinghua Yang)

The oldest known sperm in the world has been discovered, locked in a piece of amber that solidified when behemoths like Spinosaurus dominated the Earth.

The giant sperm comes from a much more miniscule creature than the toothy Spinosaurus: an ostracod, a crustacean that looks like a shrimp dressing up as a clam for Halloween. Known colloquially as "seed shrimp," ostracods typically grow just a few tenths of an inch long. Their bodies are protected by a bivalve shell, from which tiny, crab-like appendages sometimes protrude.

There are thousands of ostracod species alive today, and many boast giant sperm cells, the longest of which unspools to a jaw-dropping 0.46 inches (11.8 millimeters), far longer than the animal that produces it. Now, scientists have found an example of this enormous sperm in an ostracod from the Cretaceous period, 100 million years ago. It's the oldest unambiguous example of any animal sperm by 50 million years.

Related: See images of the oldest 'petrified' giant sperm

Locked in amber

The sperm was found inside a disc of amber about the size of a postage stamp in a mine in northern Myanmar. In this tiny blob of tree resin were 39 ostracods, 31 of which belong to a never-before-seen species now called Myanmarcypris hui. Individuals grew only 0.02 inches (0.59 millimeters) in length.

Most exciting, though, was what researchers found inside an adult female M. hui. The female's soft tissues were preserved, including four tiny eggs (each just 50 micrometers in diameter, less than the diameter of a human hair) and a mass of something that looked like spaghetti within the female’s seminal receptacles. 

Related: Photos: Ancient ants & termites locked in amber

Image 1 of 6

Only a few of the ostracods in the amber piece could be studied using light microscopy, like this individual of the new species Myanmarcypris hui. Its antennae extend from the bivalved shell.

Only a few of the ostracods in the amber piece could be studied using light microscopy, like this individual of the new species Myanmarcypris hui. Its antennae extend from the bivalved shell. (Image credit: He Wang & Xiangdong Zhao)
Image 2 of 6

The scientists found thirty - nine ostracod crustaceans were entrapped in this tiny piece of Cretaceous amber found in Myanmar.

The scientists found 39 ostracod crustaceans were entrapped in this tiny piece of Cretaceous amber found in Myanmar. (Image credit: He Wang & Xiangdong Zhao)
Image 3 of 6

Here, reconstructions of a female of the Cretaceous ostracod crustacean Myanmarcypris hui. Upper left: the tips of both pairs of antennae can be seen extending from the front of the strongly ornamented bivalved shell. Upper right: inside the shell (now transparent) some of the appendages can be seen, as well as eggs (green) and the sperm receptacles (purple). Lower right: reconstruction of the paired sperm receptacles. Lower left: one of the sperm receptacles in more detail, filled with filamentous giant sperms.

Here, reconstructions of a female of the Cretaceous ostracod crustacean Myanmarcypris hui. Upper left: the tips of both pairs of antennae can be seen extending from the front of the strongly ornamented bivalved shell. Upper right: inside the shell (now transparent) some of the appendages can be seen, as well as eggs (green) and the sperm receptacles (purple). Lower right: reconstruction of the paired sperm receptacles. Lower left: one of the sperm receptacles in more detail, filled with filamentous giant sperms. (Image credit: He Wang)
Image 4 of 6

A reconstruction of a male of the Cretaceous ostracod crustacean Myanmarcypris hui. The paired antennae – typical of crustaceans – extend from the strongly ornamented bivalved shell.

A reconstruction of a male of the Cretaceous ostracod crustacean Myanmarcypris hui. The paired antennae – typical of crustaceans – extend from the strongly ornamented bivalved shell. (Image credit: Renate Matzke-Karasz)
Image 5 of 6

The scientists found thirty - nine ostracod crustaceans were entrapped in this tiny piece of Cretaceous amber found in Myanmar.

This reconstruction shows one of the sperm storage organs (seminal receptacles) of a female of the ostracod crustacean Myanmarcypris hui. (Image credit: He Wang & Xiangdong Zhao)
Image 6 of 6

Artist’s reconstruction of the Cretaceous ostracod crustacean Myanmarcypris hui male (right) and female (left) during mating.

This artist's reconstruction shows the Cretaceous ostracod crustacean Myanmarcypris hui male (right) and female (left) during mating. (Image credit: Dinghua Yang)

He Wang, a paleontologist and postdoctoral researcher at the Chinese Academy of Science, used computed tomography to reconstruct a three-dimensional image of this mass and sent it to Renate Matzke-Karasz, an ostracod expert and paleontologist at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich.

"I immediately congratulated him on having reconstructed the oldest animal sperm," Matzke-Karasz told Live Science.

Wang, Matzke-Karasz and their colleagues estimate that each sperm was 200 micrometers long. They published their findings today (Sept. 16) in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Academy B.

The evolution of giant sperm

Before this discovery, the oldest confirmed animal sperm dated to about 50 million years ago. It was found in a worm cocoon from Antarctica. The oldest ostracod sperm found prior to this discovery dates back only 17 million years (though it was the oldest sperm on record when it was first found).

The discovery of giant sperm dating back 100 million years is exciting, Matzke-Karasz said, because giant sperm are an energy-intensive way to reproduce. They require lots of energy to make and lots of space within the animal devoted to the reproductive tract. Mating also takes a long time when giant sperm are involved, Matzke-Karasz said.

"You might think that this doesn't make sense from an evolutionary standpoint," she said. "But in ostracods, it seemed to work for more than 100 million years."

There are only 20 or so examples of ostracod soft tissue preserved by fossilization, Matzke-Karasz said. It was surprising to find these aquatic animals in fossilized plant resin, so the next step is to seek out other amber specimens from other time periods that might contain ostracods. 

Originally published on Live Science.

  • RobertPolaris
    So the sperm was crammed inside a tiny incrustation and a Wang reconstructed it :unsure::oops::tonguewink:
    Reply
  • Valentine Michael Smith
    Hhn hhn hhn hhn hhn. English makes things so fun, yah?
    Reply
  • hellopunyhumans
    How big is your d***?
    tiny, but my sperm is almost half an inch long.
    Reply