Amber, or fossil tree sap, can contain perfectly preserved plants, insects and animals many millions of years old. These tiny tinted windows to an ancient past have shown us some surprising things, including finely detailed prehistoric animals as large and complex as crustaceans, frogs and lizards.
In some ways, oozing pine sap is a miniaturized version of the La Brea tar pits: once you’re in, there’s no getting out. Of course, oozing pine sap is a semi-transparent golden hue and the La Brea tar pits don’t fall upon their victims unexpectedly from above.
(image via: Wikipedia)
Very little would be known of the evolution of spiders if it were not for specimens found encased in amber. Take the spider above – gently now, you don’t want to drop it. It looks like it was living mere minutes ago when in actuality tens of millions of years have passed. What would one think, locked motionless inside a ball of tree sap for so long? If it were me, I’d be very hungry and VERY angry. Handle with care, indeed.
Wasps of all kinds have buzzed through the air for many millions of years – we know this because some of them had the bad fortune of being engulfed in proto-amber. Fortunately for US, however, the potent preservative qualities of the sap and, later, the amber have conspired to show us the history of these creatures as well as their shapes, forms and even colors.
(images via: Mr Blue Amber)
Now this is sweet… literally. The exceptionally rare amber inclusion above is part of a honeycomb or some cells from a wasp’s nest.
(image via: National Geographic)
Fresh tree sap is sticky to be sure, but it’s often free-flowing enough that engulfed tiny creatures are able to spread their wings one final time. Such is the case of the tiny wasp above, frozen in time for 95 million years. It’s amazing to consider that in its next-to-last wingbeat, the wasp shared the atmosphere with dinosaurs in what is now Ethiopia.
Butterflies and Moths
What are the odds a butterfly’s wing would survive in a state of near-perfect preservation for millions of years? If said wing (and owner) end up as an amber inclusion, then the odds are excellent indeed!
(image via: Nature)
Fossilization in amber allows details as fine as the color of the scales on a butterfly’s wings to be preserved, in the case above for approximately 20 million years. Beware of butterflies trapped in amber that look too good, by the way. Once stuck, any creature will struggle to break free and “perfect” specimens are likely fakes.
From butterflies to snails, from delicate to tough, all creatures great and small (but mostly small) must submit to amber’s cloying embrace. Snails trapped in amber are anything but common, however, and even more so when they’re found embedded in blue amber. Amber can come in a variety of shades other than, well, “amber” but blue is especially beautiful. The color change is caused by the application of heat and sunlight to ordinary amber.
Snails in amber is one thing, SEA snails is another. We’re not sure how sea snails came in contact with sap oozing from a forest conifer. Guess you had to be there… 25 million years ago in what is now the Dominican Republic.
(images via: WonderWorlds.org)
Speaking of “fish out of water”, how to explain crabs or crab-like creatures trapped in amber? Perhaps these ancient creatures aren’t crabs at all, but instead are large mites, pseudo-scorpions or some ancient relative of both.
The image above, bottom panel, isn’t an actual ancient frog trapped in amber for millions of years – if it were, it’d be worth… millions? Frogs, toads and other amphibians are very rarely found as amber inclusions for several reasons: they’re usually larger than most insects and as such have a greater amount of muscle power available to extract themselves from the primordial goo, their moist skin is less likely to stick to the sap, and their usual habitats aren’t in the trees.
(image via: Galaxy FM)
Except for tree frogs, of course, of which the fingernail-sized specimen above is a prime example. If authenticated, this frog would have met his maker approximately 25 million years ago in the area of today’s Chiapas State, Mexico.
(images via: FossilMail)
The inch-long lizard above may have only spent a couple of million years trapped in amber, but it doesn’t look to have been there a day over… a day! The tiny hand reaching out to us over an inconceivable span of time is somehow poignant though for the unfortunate lizard, its last living day was probably much like any other.
(image via: Amberica West)
Lizards locked in amber are both extremely rare and extremely valuable: the piece above is listed at $70,000! For many collectors, however, gazing at a vertebrate trapped in ancient amber is the closest thing to stepping into a time machine. Just be grateful those denizens of the past can’t step out of their golden prison and shake (or something) OUR hands.
(image via: Cryptozoology Online)
Alas, our march of sticky progress ends without hide nor hair of any higher creatures… oh wait, I spoke too soon! An unassuming chunk of amber found at the Font-de-Benon quarry at Archingeay-Les Nouillers in Charente-Maritime, southwest France, has revealed the presence of two mammal hairs. Scientists can’t say with certainty what kind of mammal left its hairs for posterity but suffice to say, most fur-bearin’ varmints 100 million years ago were small and shrew-like. They carried within them the seeds of greatness, however, starting with not getting themselves stuck fast for all eternity.