Official Web Site of Fossil Amber
Last Update....September, 2021
My first encounter with amber occurred when I spotted a honey colored "fossil" at an antique shop. The rounded piece had small inclusions in it which I identified as ants and other organic debris. I was amazed! Here was a true part of natural history. This really belonged in an antique shop. I purchased that piece of amber, and my fascination with the resin was solidified.
Amber is the hardened resin of coniferous and angiosperms trees (3,5). Resin is not to be confused with sap which is a product of photosynthesis that
Each locality produces amber of a distinct type. Often the location of the amber can be derived visually from the amber itself. Baltic amber may have a cloudy appearance, due to air bubbles. The thicker the flow, the more bubbles that remained. The thinner the flow, the fewer the bubbles(2). Baltic amber also has a high percentage of succinic acid, as much as 8% by weight. In addition this amber often has stellate oak hairs. Fifteen varieties of trees have been recognized so far from these hairs (5). White amber (clear) has been found in Tasmania and is estimated to be about 2 million years old (6). Dominican Republic amber, around 25 million years old, has little succinic acid in it; the color is usually clear yellow; is a bit harder than other amber; and it commonly has ants and beetles as inclusions (2). Spectral analysis can reveal the location and age of most amber.
Amber comes in many
The selective entrapping of insects and other small animals is a fascinating aspect of the fossil. Large animals are often strong enough to break free of the sticky resin, while small insects such as ants, bees, beetles and mites are usually not strong enough to break free from its hold. It is for this reason that animals most often-found in amber are Arthropods. In New Jersey the oldest ants (workers) have been found, dating from the Cretaceous period, confirming that sociality has existed as far back as 100 million years ago. It is with these small animals that many questions for modern scientists are revealed.
Bacteria that existed millions of years ago are probably still in and on the trapped animals. Could they still be alive? Might they carry disease organisms that have long since become extinct? Could they carry resistant plasmids that scientists may be able to use? In March of 1982 in Science magazine, Roberta Hess and George Poinar, Jr. announced that the discovery of cellular components in embedded insects.
Below is the NEW Amber Cam!
They found such cellular detail as nuclei, ribosomes and chromosomes (6). Their efforts to try and sequence the possible DNA failed. However, since then many advances in DNA cloning have occurred. In particular the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) which allows millions of copies of DNA to be made from a very small original sample in a short time. Now, even DNA from
One unique thing about inclusions in amber is that the animals are not fossils in the classic sense. Most fossils are the imprint or bony remains of an organism. Amber has the actual animal itself! While usually all that remains is a carbonaceous crust, sometimes soft parts do survive (3). Recently even the air bubbles that reside in different ambers have been analyzed to determined the composition of an atmosphere at that time. It is with these that the future dreams of research reside.
When students view the sample, the same excitement that I have always felt surges through them. My students are always interested in the "real-life" aspect of the fossilized insects. Showing the amber sample and relating it to the geologic time line, or life as it was in the prehistoric time is particularly effective. With an over head projector, a dissecting microscope or just hand held observation, students experience awe in seeing the real creature. Students can readily acquire their own samples as amber, with inclusion such as insects and other organic debris, is available at rock and mineral shops from $20 to $60 a sample. It is with amber that one can easily see into past life. It combines beauty and history. It is truly a golden eyepiece to the past.
(2) Poinar, G.O., Sealed in Amber. Natural History, 9(6):26-32.
(3) Gorman, James. (1982) The 40-Million-Year-Old Bug. Discover,
Eugenio Ragazzi has pointed
(4) Grimaldi, D. A. (1988) Still Life with Flowers. Natural History,
A picture taken at a series of mines in the Dominican Republic. You can see the miners and lots of tailings!