Prehistoric sex-life revealed in new display

15 June 2010

3D models showing the unusual reproductive organs of 100-million-year-old microscopic shrimp-like animals called ostracods are on display at the Natural History Museum from this month.

Using revolutionary technology at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in France, scientists were able to uncover the internal anatomy of the microscopic ostracods from intense and highly focussed X-rays.

The Synchrotron, in France, uses radiation to produce a series of X-ray scans that are combined to m

The Synchrotron, in France, uses radiation to produce a series of X-ray scans that are combined to make a highly detailed 3D model. © A Petricola/ European Synchrotron Radiation Facility

Modern-day ostracods have 2 penises and some have sperm that are up to 10 times their body length.

Throughout the summer, you can see these 3D ostracod models and information about the research, which was published in the journal Science last year, in the small special display in the Museum’s Dinosaur Way.

The research revealed similarities in the sex organs of prehistoric and modern ostracods, meaning this way of reproducing has probably existed for at least 100 million years. This makes it the oldest evidence for reproduction with giant sperm.

The ostracod fossils used in the study were from the Museum’s specimen collections. The ancient species is called Harbinia micropapillosa and is featured in a Museum Species of the day. The fossils were so well preserved that remains of soft body tissue were intact.

Ostracods
Electron micrograph of ostracod, Harbinia micropapillosa, shows soft body parts inside.

Electron micrograph of ostracod, Harbinia micropapillosa, shows soft body parts inside the calcified case.

Ostracods are tiny aquatic animals, rarely seen as they aren’t much bigger than a full-stop. They are crustaceans, like shrimp and prawns, and have calcified shells.

Although microscopic, they are so common that their total mass makes them a vital part of the marine food chain, being an important food source for other creatures.

Worldwide there are over 50,000 named ostracod species.

Why have giant sperm?

It is not just ostracods that have giant sperm. Some species of frogs, moths, beetles and flies do too.

However, the reason for this is still a bit of a mystery to scientists. A lot of energy goes into producing the sperm but it is obviously a successful reproduction strategy as it has lasted for millions of years.

Share this

Further information

  • Find out more about the Prehistoric sex-life special display
Share this
Support us

The Natural History Museum is a leading scientific research institution, a major cultural attraction and recorder of life on Earth. For over 130 years, we have pushed the boundaries of what a museum can be. Please donate now to secure the Museum for future generations.

Make a donation to the Museum