Amber

by
Jake Brodzinsky

Amber is the fossilized resin, or sap, of trees. In the case of amber, fossilization does not mean petrifaction or mineralization. Tree resin becomes amber over the course of millions of years, under conditions of pressure and temperature which are not fully understood, by evaporation of volatile components, some oxidation, polymerization, and perhaps some other processes. Polymerization is the linking up of individual molecules into long chains, thus altering the gross physical characteristics of the material. While fresh resin resembles amber at first glance, amber is harder (2.0 to 3.0 on the Moh's scale), is not sticky to the touch, and takes a high polish.

Amber is a polymerized hydrocarbon - as are also plastics. However, there are two simple tests to determine, with a reasonable degree of assurance, whether a particular piece is amber or plastic. The first is to drop the piece into a saturated salt solution; amber will float like a cork and plastic will sink. In the second test, a hot needle will melt amber and most plastics, and if brought quickly to the nostrils, will give a heavy resinous odor (if amber). or a disagreeable acrid odor if it is plastic.

Amber has been known and loved since prehistoric times. Any references in legends to a "warm light magic stone" from the shores of the Baltic Sea was undoubtedly a reference to amber. It was deemed to be magic because,
rubbed on fur or silk, it produced static electricity which could raise the hairs on a person's arms. (Plastics do the same.) Also, being an organic substance, it was always warm to the touch, in contrast to all other gem stones. A
whole series of legends arose in connection with amber, and to this day many people believe that it brings good luck to the wearer or has curative or preventative powers against many diseases.


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However, amber was bad luck for the insects, spiders and other arthropods attracted to the fresh resin and trapped there - and extremely good luck for the scientists who could study them many
millions of years later. Of the 26 orders of insects, only three have not yet been found in amber: proturans (very tiny primitive insects), anop1urans (sucking lice) and mal10phogans (chewing lice). Some of the more spectacular finds are a mating pair of small gnats; a very tiny orthezid (scale insect) giving birth, with five or six young emerging from an egg mass; an intact and well-preserved lizard about 45 cm long; a male and female scorpion in one piece; and three lace bugs (family Tingidae) with the delicate tracery of their wings preserved in a perfect state or all eternity. In addition to insects, the list includes spiders of several families, millipedes, centipedes, sow bugs (isopods), snails, nematodes, earth worms, pseudoscorpions, daddy-long-1egs (Opi1ionidae), mites, tick, a fragment of bird feather and mammalian hairs. All these, entombed in amber, provide the scientist of today with a veritable museum laboratory in which he can study the life of a long-ago era and compare it with the modern. The rare specimens, of course, belong in a museum.

If the animal was covered with a fresh flow of resin before decomposition, then the preservation of the body form is perfect. You can, with a good magnifying lens or microscope, see very clearly the fine hairs on an insect's legs, the individual facets of the compound eyes and the individual scales on a moth's wings. Sometimes even the colors are preserved - brilliant greens and blues, and warm reds, browns and orange. However, in most cases, the soft internal tissues have long since dried out and what we see is the outer casing or shell of the body, while the body cavity itself is empty, with perhaps a little dust inside. Once in a while the fresh resin flows into and fills the body cavity, and preserves even the cellular structure to the extent that in one case a scientist in California is going to try to revive, after 40 million years, the DNA substance in the fossil body of a fungus gnat!

 

 

Bibliography (partial):

Amber of Santo Domingo - Mining: in the Dominican Republic, by Patty C. Rice, Ph. D., in the Lapidary Journal magazine, Nov. 1979, pp. 1804-1810.

Amber. The Golden Gem of the Ages, by Patty C. Rice. Ph.D., published by Van Nostrand Reinhold Company. 1980

The Magic of Amber, by Rosa Hunger. publ. by the Chilton Book Company, Radnor, Pennsylvania, 1979 Bernstein, by Dr. Dieter Schlee, Stuttgarter Beitrage zur Naturkunde - Serle C - Nr. 8, publ. by the Staatliches Museum fur Natur- "- kunde, Schloss Rosenstein, 7000 Stuttgart 1, West Germany. 1978 (in German, but with good photography)

Bernstein - Raritaten, by Dr. Dieter Schlee, 1980, published also by the Staat1iches Museum fur Naturkunde, Stuttgart. (also in German, but with superlative photography)

Golden Window on the Past, by Paul A. Zahl, Ph. D., in the National Geographic magazine, Vol. 152, No.3, September 1977, pp. 422- 435

Sealed in Amber, by Dr. George o. Poinar, Jr.. in the Natural History magazine, Vol. 91, No.6, June 1982, pp. 26-32, publ. by the American Museum of Natural History, New York City.

Amber - True or False, by Dr. George O. Poinar, Jr., in Gems and
Minerals magazine, April 1982, pp. 80-84

 


  

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