A very long time ago a man noticed that sometimes different amazing objects are stored in amber. Flower petals, scraps of leaves, conifer needles, pieces and even whole branches of trees and other plant remains, clearly visible through a transparent shell. You may wonder, how is that possible that 100 million year old insect or flower can be studied today without any difficulties? The answer is quite simple.
As you probably know, amber is a fossilized resin of pre-historic trees. If you want to know more about What is Amber, check our previous post. And due to its organic origins, amber has an amazing property – for millions of years it can keep insects, small animals and particles of plants inside, preventing them from collapsing.
Everyone knows the plot of the novel “Jurassic Park” – taking a drop of blood from the stomach of an ancient mosquito encased in amber, a scientist clones a dinosaur. And, although such a situation is probably impossible even in theory, this stone for scientists is an inexhaustible source of information. The scientists of antiquity even believed that amber attracts these substances in the same way as it attracts wool and straw. Check our What Is Amber post to learn more about this specific amber property.
Especially surprising for ancients was the excellent preservation of insects and arachnids, once trapped in liquid sticky resin and forever remaining in it.
The remains of the crust, feathers of birds, scraps of animal fur, spores and seeds of plants, and even drops of water (rain or dew), which did not evaporate, confirmed forever the impermeability of the “amber tomb.” In addition to these, air bubbles and various minerals are found in amber. Such substances preserved in amber are called inclusions.
The resin, flowing down the trunks of the pines, often became a trap for small inhabitants of the amber forest. Insects themselves sat down on the resin, attracted by its color and smell. Alternatively, they could have been taken down by a gust of wind, and also caught in amber drop that fell from a broken branch. Large insects burst from the resin, and the small ones were covered by the later resin inflows.
Not only insects and branches can be found in amber. Sometimes it is even possible to find small animals – for example, lizards. However, these are very rare inclusions – only seven lizards stored in amber were found around the world.
Thanks to amber and inclusions stored in it, scientists now know what animals, insects and plant were inhabiting earth millions of years ago.
In this post you will find
Organic World Evolution
By its properties, inclusions in amber favorably differ from prints in sedimentary rocks and due to this can be studied in such detail as modern organisms. Therefore, pieces of amber with inclusions are of great value for science.
Based on microscopic remnants of animals and plants, along the petals of flowers, spores and seeds, scientists recreate the appearance of mysterious forest that grew millions of years ago. Only thanks to amber, about 3 thousand species of arthropods (from 838 thousand known to science), living in the forest 40 million years ago, as well as about 200 plant species were discovered.
Animals, especially insects, are very sensitive to environmental conditions, so in some cases they are a good indicator of the climate. Thus, organic remains in amber serve as a direct source of knowledge of life on Earth many millions of years ago.
It should be noted that amber with inclusions of insects also have great commercial value. At the beginning of our era, Phoenician merchants paid 120 swords and 60 daggers for amber containing a buried flies. At the beginning of the XIX century, amber with insects was especially fashionable in France and in Russia.
Collections of flora and fauna inclusions in amber are available in many museums worldwide. However, the richest collection was formed in the museum at University of Koenigsberg in the early 40s of the XX century. This collection included 70 thousand samples, among which was an increasingly unique lizard with its tail torn off.
Together with lizards, there were ants and their congregations, dragonflies with outstretched wings that could hardly fit in a piece of amber, beetles of several hundred species, swarms of bees and wasps, hundreds of flies and bumblebees and even many spiders running along a well-visible web. Unfortunately, following incredible collection was destroyed during the war.
A very interesting amber sample was also presented for a very long time, in the Natural History Museum of the University of Vilnius. The sample of amber contained a whole frog inside. In 1872, at a polytechnic exhibition in Moscow, a collection of 130 pieces of amber with insects was presented.
Nowadays a rich collection of amber with animals and plants is exhibited in the Amber Museum in Palanga. It introduces visitors to dozens of fragments of flora and fauna of ancient times. Especially interesting are spiders with long legs, frozen as if they’re trying to push oneself away, free flies frozen in flight, thick termites and roasted cockroaches, ants dragging some straw, etc. Fauna remains are represented by plant branches, seeds, stamens and pistils, flower petals.
As we already said before, amber inclusions make it possible to clarify certain ideas about the change in the organic world during the last geological epochs. If you want to learn more about amber age and deposits, check our post on How Old is Amber.
The oldest fossil remains found inside amber belong to the period of Lower Cretaceous and hold great scientific insight to environments of the past. These findings were made in the mountains of Lebanon, to the southeast of the country’s capital – Beirut. Not only Lebanese amber, but also other amber of the Cretaceous period bear great information about that era.
[Prof. Aftim Acra collection, American University of Beirut]
One of the earth’s oldest natural treasures, Lebanese amber, which contains the earliest known representatives of many insect groups, unlocks the secrets of a little-known world populated by dinosaurs, pterosaurs and cycads. Here I must say that only by microscopic remnants of insects and plants, together with the petals of flowers, spores and seeds, scientists recreate the flora and fauna on Earth 150 million of years ago. Except remains of dinosaurs, of course.
Thank to amber, scientists now know that the animals imprisoned in amber were contemporaries of dinosaurs, plesiosaurs, mesosaurs. In this period salamanders appeared, the bony fishes became more diverse, the birds lost the signs of reptiles.
[Prof. Aftim Acra collection, American University of Beirut]
In the organic world of the Cretaceous, invertebrates and insects played a decisive role. Therefore, the interest caused by the findings of fauna and insects in Cretaceous fossil resins is quite understandable. In addition, until recently, Cretaceous insects were almost not investigated.
When it comes to the time period of amber origin, it is worth to be mentioned that Baltic amber is most studied in this respect. The reason to this is that Baltic amber nowadays constitutes not less than 90% of the bulk of amber already collected throughout the world. It consists at 98% of Pinus succinifera pine resin.#BalticAmber nowadays constitutes not less than 90% of all #amber already collected in the world. Click To Tweet
Among the whole bulk of collected amber, only around 5% contain inclusions. Among them – 98.3% of fauna inclusions, flora inclusions account for 0.4% and 1.3% are reptiles, mollusks, minerals, air and water vesicles.
Baltic amber is relatively young: it was formed approximately in the middle of the Paleogene, about 50-45 million years ago. The fauna of the Paleogene, in particular insects, differs little from modern forms. This suggests that in the last 60-50 million years the evolution of insects experience some sort of recession. So, 99% of insects families found in Baltic amber are still exist on Earth.
The millipedes found in amber, mites, spiders, even-footed crabs, and terrestrial mollusks, have not changed much. Other animals also evolved poorly. Pants almost did not change during this time as well. Only mammals developed comparatively quickly in the Cenozoic.
Check the table below, to learn more about time periods and appearance of amber since the Jurassic times.
It should be mentioned that many groups of insects, widely presented in Cenozoic period, were yet rare in the Cretaceous period. This is primarily the pathetic hymenoptera, mainly ants, butterflies, higher flies, termites represented only by primitive forms. In the Paleogene, these insects became more diverse and more common.
Studies have shown that the number of extinct species of insects gradually decreased from the Upper Jurassic time to the Cenozoic. In the Paleogene, as already mentioned, the fauna of insects was close to the modern one. The number of extinct insects fell sharply in the second half of the Cretaceous.
This phenomenon is not accidental, but, in the opinion of Rodendorff B. and Zherikhin V, is associated with a radical restructuring of vegetation – a sharp increase in angiosperms, with which the life of insects is closely related. By the middle of the Cretaceous period, trees, shrubs and grasses, very similar to the plants of our days, grew on the Earth. Some of these trees and shrubs were deciduous.
The evolutionary transformation of plants and animals, established with the help of inclusions of organic residues in amber, had an impact on the life of vertebrates. On land, dinosaurs continued to dominate – huge, long-necked animals leading a semi-aquatic life, but in the middle of the Cretaceous they began to die out. Stegosaurus Jurassic times disappeared, instead of them appeared flatheaded animals with large spikes. Other groups of reptiles have also changed significantly. The most promising were insectivores – these were the first placental animals.
Thus, the study of inclusions of animals and plants in amber is of great importance for understanding the formation of modern entomofauna and the solution of a number of general evolutionary problems.
This year, seven flowers have been found perfectly preserved in amber, from 100 million years ago. The flowers, discovered in Myanmar, were encased in amber in the Cretaceous period in what would have been a pine forest.
[Oregon State University]
Following discovery is exceptional. Never before amber samples containing flowers were preserved that good.
The amber preserved the floral parts so well that they look like they were just picked from the garden.
Dinosaurs may have knocked the branches that dropped the flowers into resin deposits on the bark of an araucaria tree, which is thought to have produced the resin that fossilized into the amber.” George Poinar Jr, professor emeritus of Oregon State University’s College of Science said in a statement.
Moreover, as we said before floral inclusion are contained in only around 1% of all amber found with inclusions what makes this discovery even more important.
In 2014, researchers from Oregon State University have revealed the earliest evidence of sexual reproduction in flower plants in a report published in the Journal of the Botanical Institute of Texas.
The evidence was found in a 100-million-year old piece of amber containing a bunch of 18 previously-undescribed flowers from the Cretaceous Period. Dubbed Micropetasos burmensis, the flowers were frozen in the process of making new seeds.
[Micropetasos burmensis flower frozen in amber found in Myanmar, Oregon State University]
In overall, around 197 species of vegetation: 63 spores, 33 gymnosperms and 101 angiosperms were found in Baltic amber till 1971. [Katinas, 1971]. I bet even more were found since then.
For example, in 2016 scientists found a perfectly preserved prehistoric flower embedded in amber that is thought to be a long-lost relative of modern plants including sunflowers, coffee, peppers, potatoes and mint.
[A fossilised flower of Strychnos electri found in amber found in Dominican Republic, Oregon State University]
Its discovery in a mine in the Dominican Republic represents the first evidence that this major group of plants – the asterids – comprising some 80,000 species, had reached the New World by between 15 and 45 million years ago, the estimated age of the fossil amber.
Here I must say that following few paragraphs will be highly interesting for those who are well familiar with the floral world. If you feel that you’re no that much interested, please proceed to the next chapter about Animal inclusions.
Spore plants in amber are typically represented by lower mushrooms and various molds, brought by insects into amber. The most diverse are the representatives of the higher spores.
Gymnosperms in amber can be seen often, but they are poorly studied and therefore it is difficult to determine their appearance.
Pine in amber is represented by 16 species, revealed mainly by the needle fragments found. There are also samples of inflorescences with scattered pollen and free pollen, several species of fir, and also larch, akin to the modern larch of the Daurian, spruce. The taxonomic family is represented by species of the sequoia and umbelliferous pine genus. Among the cypresses, there are remnants of the vidringtonia genera, saddle and cypress.
Angiosperms in amber are mainly dicotyledons. Monocotyledons presented only by few palm trees. Among the dicotyledons scientists separate oak, beech, maple, species of magnoliaceae, laurel, saxifragaceae, loranthus, ericaceae, etc.
Interesting are the findings of the Myrica species, which grow in countries with warm and dry climates. The vegetation of the marginal parts of forests and open spaces is represented by buckwheat, geranium, flax, various umbelliferous, bellflowers, honeysuckles, etc. Among the marsh plants there are oxalidaceae, thymelaeaceae, ericaceae families.
Based on the presented above findings, scientists have concluded that 60 – 35 million years ago forests were dominated by plants of moderately warm climate. Coniferous and broad-leaved trees were widely distributed, as well as spore plants. However, species’ group for many plant remains is not yet defined.
The burial of arthropods in the resin depended on many factors, and primarily on the size of the animal, the viscosity and abundance of resin. Arthropods, adhering to a drop of resin, were not drowned in it, but overlapped with new batches of resin, so that the animal could not get out of a crystal clear dungeon. The resin had a low viscosity and froze quickly, which ensured good preservation of even the finest, micronically measured arthropods. The hardened resin retained only the impression of the arthropod with a small amount of chitinous substance. All attempts to disassemble it from there were not successful.
According to the data of the geologist V.I. Katinasa (1971), arthropods stored in amber are represented by two classes – arachnids and insects. The class of arachnids consists of four orders: pseudoscorpions, opiliones, spiders and acarines.
Pseudoscorpions in amber are represented by 12 genera, 9 families. Modern members of this detachment are widely spread in nature, but they are not noticeable, since they lead a hidden way of life, live in mosses, soil humus under the roots of trees, under the stagnant bark, in burrows and nests of vertebrates, in caves. Some of them live in human dwellings. Distributed in all parts of the world; they are most diverse in the tropics.
[AMNH Novitates, No. 3361, Mar 26, 2002.]
Opiliones in amber is found from 8 families. Easily identified by a small body (0.6 cm) with excessively long legs (up to 16 cm), which are easily separated. So in this way most of the haymakers are saved from enemies. Obviously, this explains the fairly frequent findings of the legs that have fallen into amber. Distributed very widely – from tropical to polar countries. Most active at dusk or at night, prefer highly humid habitats and permanently live in forest litter and other secluded places.
[American Museum of Natural History]
In 2010, paleontologists at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Universitat Bonn in Germany presented a paper, describing an impressively intact collection of insects in an ancient amber deposit that oozed from a tropical forest in the Indian state of Gujarat.
The insects are between 50 million and 52 million years old — so primeval that they’re shaking up theories about the age of the oldest tropical forest and the biogeography of a continent.
Scientists believe India split off from Africa about 160 million years ago and languidly floated east for about 110 million years. When it finally smashed into Asia it raised a huge bulge — what we now know as the Himalayas. However, after the excavation of the amber deposit from that forest one new idea came to rise.
More than 700 arthropods from 55 different genera — mostly insects, but also spiders and plants were found in the deposit near Gujarat. What’s unusual is that many of these species are also found in other parts of the world like Europe, Australia and even in Central America, and are not native to India alone.
Dr. Jes Rust, a paleontologist at the Universitat Bonn and a lead author of the paper, says: “The finding suggests India may not have been isolated at all in its drift from Africa to Asia. Instead, there may have been long chains of volcanic islands between the continental plates — similar to Japan or Indonesia today. The insect species of Asia might have made the trip to India simply by “island-hopping.”
Spiders are one of the most numerous groups. 41 families of this detachment are known. The composition of the fauna of spiders is very specific for different zoogeographical regions. The species found in amber lived both in open, well-lit places in the sun and in forest litter, in moss, in grassy and arboreal vegetation, under bark and in tree hollows. Many are close to the species that currently live in tropical and subtropical areas.
In 2012, researchers have found trapped in amber a rare dinosaur-age scene of a spider attacking a wasp caught in its web. This was the only fossil ever discovered that shows a spider attacking prey in its web. Preserved in amber, it’s about 100 million years old.
[Oregon State University]
The piece of amber, which contains 15 intact strands of spider silk, provides the first fossil evidence of such an assault, the researchers said. It was excavated in a Burmese mine and dates back to the Early Cretaceous, between 97 million and 110 million years ago.
“This juvenile spider was going to make a meal out of a tiny parasitic wasp, but never quite got to it,” George Poinar, Jr., a zoology professor at Oregon State University, said in a statement.
Together with spider a male wasp suddenly found itself trapped in a spider web. This was the wasp’s worst nightmare, and it never ended. The wasp was watching the spider just as it was about to be attacked, when tree resin flowed over and captured both of them.”
The mites in amber are represented by 29 families. They live in soil, forest litter, accumulations of various plant residues, decaying wood, mushrooms, lichens. Small forms of Diptera and primitive wingless insects predominate in amber.
Together with arachnids there were dozens of other insects trapped in amber: cockroaches, termites, orthopteras, dragonflies, various bugs, fleas, dipteras that comprise more than half of all insects found in amber and etc.
Lepidoptera (butterflies). Of the known 8000 species in science, 51 species are found in amber.
Hymenoptera is mainly represented by ants, rare bees and wasps.
In addition to arthropods, the remains of other animals are also found in amber: wool and hair protein, feathers of woodpeckers.
In 2013, instead of digging through rocks and rubble to find fossils, a group of Canadian paleontologists decided to dig through museums’ amber collections instead. Their unique approach paid off when they discovered feathers and never-before-seen structures, which they think are something called dinofuzz.
Preserved for 70 to 85 million years, these feathers are part of a newly revealed trove of likely dinosaur and bird plumage found trapped in amber in Alberta, Canada.
To find everything from the most primitive types of feather fossils in the record … to highly evolved bird feathers, with the features required to make flight feathers, here in a single deposit that’s all roughly the same age—it’s really incredible,” said University of Alberta paleoecologist Alexander Wolfe, co-author of the September 16 Science paper describing the research.
Some of the structures embedded in the amber don’t resemble anything seen on any creature living today, the researchers report.
Following collection is among the first to reveal all major evolutionary stages of feather development in non-avian dinosaurs and birds.
Mineral inclusions in amber are represented by iron sulphide – pyrite and bituminous substance. The thin crust of pyrite often lays the walls of circular cavities with a cross section of up to 0.5 cm. Plate clusters of fine-grained pyrite are observed between the puff-slicks of variously colored amber. Inheriting the form of the drift, such clusters are often curved.
More rarely fine-grained pyrite has the form of columns up to 3 mm long. The original large shiny pyrite precipitates up to 0.5 mm in diameter, relatively easily extracted from the wells of the same diameter. Some of these excretions with cut elements are similar to crystals. Pirita has a brass-yellow color. Its surface is shiny and dull, slightly oxidized. In relation to amber is a later education.
Bituminous substance included in amber, black viscous or brittle. Viscous bitumen lined with a film of void walls up to 0.5 mm in diameter. Fragile bitumen is observed in wedge-shaped cracks, breaking the central part of some pieces of amber.
You know, amber itself is a very special and exclusive gem.
This raw piece of this million year old resin could give you a freedom and take it from you in the Ancient Rome. With the equal simplicity.
It was used to cure the severe head, neck and throat pain according to Hippocrate. Wearing amber bracelets was beneficial to sufferers of rheumatism and arthritis. Reduced fatigue and feelings of general weariness. Even Martin Luther carried a piece of amber in his pocket as a protection against kidney stones.
It is a perfect investment and an amazing piece of history that can be passed through generations allowing you to stay in minds of your descendants for hundreds of years. In the same way as amber did. For thousands of years.
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