Insects Trapped in Amber

Harold Taylor and a piece of amber filled with fossilized insects
A cricket
A handful of amber
Insects trapped in amber

Many of us are familiar with the high preservation of insects and leaves in the Green River Formation, a Colorado lagerstätte well known for field trips yielding magnificent fossils.  But imagine fossils of that high quality that aren’t squashed into two dimensions but instead are preserved ‘suspended in space’ as if they are still alive.

Harold Taylor presented our November Stones ‘n Bones program on Insects Trapped in Amber.  It was a magical insight into exquisite preservation.

We were able to readily identify ants, flies, spiders, wasps, crickets, and mites.  And with the aid of loupes with magnification, we could easily see the hair on a fly’s back, the spikes on a cricket’s legs, details in eyes and veins in wings.  One bug had beautiful stripes on its back.  Many insects were translucent.  Color can be preserved.  Sometimes even the spider’s web is visible.

Amber is a fossilized tree resin, mostly carbon and hydrogen.  The hardened resin is much like a plastic.   Amber is prepared by being cut to size and then polished.  Cutting amber into smaller pieces eliminates many of the gas bubbles which obscure the insects.

The oldest amber on our planet dates to 320 million years ago, but amber didn’t become abundant until about 150 million years ago, when we find many insects and arthropods suspended in the golden resin.  The oldest amber containing arthropods comes from Lebanon and Jordan, and provides science with some of the oldest sampled ecosystems.

Today most of our amber comes from the Baltic area of Europe (without many fossils), the Dominican Republic, Colombia (very fossiliferous), and Madagascar.

Scientists study amber inclusions for their contribution to understanding taxonomy and evolution, and in reconstructing ecosystems as well as organisms.  Trees exude resin to seal wounds from insect predation or damaging cuts.  Small creatures can quickly become trapped in the resin before it hardens into amber.      Today’s science is unable to match the amber with a specific tree.  Frankincense is an aromatic resin.

Young amber is often called copal, though some scientists believe there is no difference between amber and copal.

Advice:  Don’t expose your amber to sunlight.  It is biodegradable, an unstable organic polymer, though this inevitable destruction takes place over millions of years.

One excellent reference:  “What Bugged the Dinosaurs?”  by George and Roberta Poinar.

Harold (standing), Mary Chamberlain, Matt Eaton, Diana Biggs, Loretta Bailey (with book), Christina Taylor, Millie Wintz
Diana and Loretta use their loupes to view the exquisitely preserved anatomical details

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