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Window to the Past


Window to the Past

David A. Grimaldi

Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, in association with the American Museum of Natural History



Page 2: True scorpion. Dominican

amber, 3x4". Private collection

Page 6: Chest. Replica of seventeenth-century German design, made c. 1880 in Munich for Arnold Buffum by Fritz von Muller, director of the Academy of Art in Munich. Height 18 ". Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Bequest of William Arnold Buffum, 02.86

The body of the chest is of ebony and silver gilt, with "windows" of transparent amber medallions, cut in profiles and portraits, inserted. The amber has been called Sicilian but is most likely Baltic.

Page 7: Man carrying a burden. China, eighteenth century or earlier. Height 3.2". American Museum of Natural History (Anthropology). Drummond Collection, 70.3.2584

The figure is carved from a single piece of clear yellow amber, the base from another piece of similar color.

Editor: Harriet Whelchel Designer: Maria Learmonth Miller

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data


David A.

Amber: window to the past / by David A. Grimaldi. cm.

p. Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 0-8109-1966-4 (Abrams: doth) /0-8109-2652-0 (Mus. pbk)

1. Amber.

2. Amber art objects.






Copyright © 1996 American Museum of Natural History

Published in 1996 by Harry N. Abrams, Incorporated, New York A Times Mirror Company No part of the contents of this book may be reproduced without the written permission of the publisher

Printed and bound in Japan


and Acknowledgments




I 1

Origins and Propertie s




Copa l


Deposits of th e Worl d


T h e Era of th e Dinosaurs: Mesozoi c Ambe r


Tertiary Deposits


Baltic Ambe r


Dominica n an d Mexican Ambe r


Frozen in th e Act


Ancient Communities: Reconstructing the Ancient Dominica n Ambe r Forest


Intricate Preservation


Ancient DNA, Evolution, and Suspended Animatio n


Processed Amber, Imitations, and Forgeries





Mesolithic Period to the Bronz e Age


Ambe r amon g the Ancients


Medieval and Renaissance Ambe r


Seventeenth-Nineteenth-Centur y Europea n Ambe r


Th e Ambe r Roo m


Asian Ambers




2 0 9




Photograph/Illustratio n






eing a

scientist ha d bee n a goal

of min e

ever since


wa s

a child,

bu t it was

JD no t until I wa s an undergraduat e that I realized one could actually do science for a living (albeit the mai n rewar d bein g personal, no t at all monetary). I was interested in all aspects of natura l history, and deeply so in fossils and insects. In my first year as a graduat e student at Cornell, I me t Jake Brodzinsky a noted dealer of insects fossilized in Dominica n amber, wh o showe d me the variety of life preserved in tha t substance. All othe r fossils just seeme d rendere d flat in rocks. Th e fascination has grow n ever since, and I have ardently collected ambe r in various parts of Nort h and Centra l Americ a (including the Caribbean). As I learned mor e abou t amber, I gradually came to realize ho w few specialists ther e are abou t ambe r in general. As a museu m curator, and somewha t out of necessity, I have bee n involved in studies on the chemistry, paleontology, and provenanc e of amber, and it has bee n a delightfully eclectic pursuit.

T h e inspiration for this boo k came from a desire to produc e

a lavishly illus-

trate d volume on the entire spectrum of amber. Th e text, of course, should be accurat e and informative, bu t the image s should speak for themselves. A high standard for photograph s wa s set by Diete r Schlee at the Museum fur Natur- kund e in Stuttgart. Thes e beautiful photographs, which wer e published in the Stuttgarte r Beitrage series, are of wondrou s fossil and mineralogical pieces of amber, bu t the booklets are in Germa n and no t easily obtained. Whe n the America n Museu m of Natura l History launched an exhibit on the natural history and artistry of amber, openin g in March 1996, it was a prime opportunity to produc e such a book, which woul d be a guide for developing as well as enjoying the exhibit.

Various book s written on ambe r fulfill specific needs. Th e genera l book s by Patty Rice and Helen Fraquet have texts that are well researched and informative. Likewise, ther e are several academi c book s on the paleontology of amber, such as the one s by Sven Larsson and George Poinar. Yet, somethin g wa s still neede d to kindle the popula r imagination vis-a-vis captivating images. Several scholarly work s on ambe r in art are informative bu t are very focused on specific collections, such as Marjorie Trusted's catalogue of the collection of Europea n ambers in the Victoria and Albert Museum, D. E. Strong's catalogue of the

ancient ambers in the British Museum, and Alfred Rohde's grea t

1937 classic

on the eighteenth-centur y Europea n decorative arts. Perhaps the closest equivalent to the present volume is Gisela Reineking von Bock's 1981 book , bu t

it has mor e black-and-white tha n color photographs, is mostly abou t Europea n decorative objects, and is available only in German . As mediums bot h for objets d'art and the preservation of extinct organisms wit h unparalleled fidelity, ambe r and resins fall into their ow n category of substances. Science can sometime s reduc e the mystiqu e of a subject. In the case of amber, current scientific inquiry has actually adde d mor e romanc e to an already mystical substance. An American fascination wit h ambe r has bee n fueled by various scientific

discoveries that have bee n widely popularized, man y of the m having bee n mad e

a t the American Museu m of Natura l Histor y



my hop e

tha t the present

boo k and the exhibit will help to mak e that fascination grow.

A boo k like this canno t be developed withou t the help an d cooperatio n of man y talented people . It is a pleasur e to than k the following individuals for their help, especially (at the America n Museu m of Natura l History) Denis Finnin andjackly n Beckett in the Photograph y Studio and President and Chairma n Emeritus of the AMNH , Robert Goelet, for his persona l generosity in sponsoring ambe r research; an d numerou s others wh o helped in a grea t variety of ways: Dr. Herbert Axelrod, Ed Bridges, Joe Peters, Sarah Covington , Joel Sweimler, Do n Clyde, Barbar a Conklin, Sam Taylor, Gerar d Case, Julian Stark, Linda Krause, Han k Silverstein, Lisa Stillman, Donn a Englund, and Bea Brewster. Withou t the support of and talent a t the Museu m this wor k woul d have bee n muc h mor e difficult. Muc h of my scientific research on ambe r has

bee n generously sponsored by a gran t


the Nationa l Science Foundation.

I am also indebted to peopl e at othe r institutions, and various private indi- viduals, especially Ettor e an d Rem o Morone , for their gracious support and help in studying their wondrou s collection; Diete r Schlee-(Museum fur Naturkunde , Stuttgart); Susan Hendrickson ; Alexande r Shedrinsky (New York University Institute of Fine Arts); and the conservators and photographers a t the Museu m of Fine Arts, Boston, wh o worke d very har d to prepar e the Buffum Collection for this boo k and the exhibition. Th e support of Dr. Ann e Poule t and Janis Staggs at the Museu m of Fine Arts is deeply appreciated.

Ther e are numerou s others wh o arrange d for loans or contributed informa - tion: Faya Causi (Washington D.C.); Andrew Ross, Richard Fortey, and Andre w

Clark (Natura l History Museum,

London); Joh n Coope r (Booth Museum,

Brighton); Ivan Sautov (Ekaterininsky Palace Museum, St. Petersburg); Cristina Piacenti (Museo degli Argenti, Florence); Marjorie Trusted (Victoria and Albert Museum, London); Vladimir Zherikhi n and Yuri Popov (Paleontological Institute, Moscow); William Crepe t and Rudolf Meie r (Cornell University); Judith and Michael Steinhardt; Jame s Watt, Joa n Mertens, and Claire Vincent

(Metropolitan Museum of Art); Susana Pancaldo, Shelby White , an d Leo n Levy; and Laura Siegel (Robert Habe r Gallery, Ne w York).


all I

owe deep thanks.

Overleaf: Portions of three contour or flight feathers. Length of amber 1.5". Private collection







T he wor d amber can have man y associations.



no t

a minera l bu t

is used

as an d called a semiprecious stone . Th e oldest and most continuou s use of it, in fact, is for adornment . Althoug h it is ancient tree resin, ambe r is no t exactly

fossilized. We often think of fossils as bein g the remains of extinct organisms, like dinosaur bones, and impressions of ferns, leaves, and insect wings in rocks. Unlike thes e kinds of fossils, which are usually minera l replacements of the original structure , ambe r is entirely organic; its compositio n from the original resin ha s change d little over millions of years. Even the inclusions of tiny organisms in ambe r are strikingly intact. Th e most commo n response from

peopl e wh o have seen their first ambe r fossil is on e almost of disbelief that somethin g so old could be so beautifully preserved. Exquisite preservation is a natura l propert y of certain kinds of resins, althoug h the process is no t

understoo d very well.

Hundred s of deposits of ambe r occu r aroun d the world, most of them in trac e quantities. On e woul d find ambe r in any place wher e the hardene d resin of various extinct plants woul d be preserved, bu t special conditions are required to preserve this substanc e over millions of years, and only occasionally has ambe r survived in quantities large enoug h to be mined. Ther e exist only abou t twent y such rich deposits of ambe r in the world, and the deposits vary greatly in age. It is a commo n misconception that ambe r is exclusively the fossilized resin of pines; in fact, ambe r wa s forme d by various conifer trees (only a few of the m apparently related to pines), as well as by some tropical broad-leaved trees. Origins of specific ambe r deposits are presented in detail later in this book .

Most deposits of amber are in marine sediments. Buoyant in water, resin would have floated down rivers with logs and fallen trees and eventually become stranded and concentrated on the shores. Sediments gradually covered the hardened resin, logs, and branches. Over thousands to millions of years, the wood became lignite and the resin turned to amber.


Amber in


ORIGINS AND PROPERTIES T he wor d amber can have man y associations. It is no
Geological time scale, showing the periods relevant to the formation of amber Ambe r is almost

Geological time scale, showing the periods relevant to the formation of amber

Ambe r is almost always preserved in a sediment tha t forme d the botto m

of an ancient

lagoon or river delta at the




ocean or sea.

Th e specific

gravity of solid ambe r is only slightly highe r than tha t of water; althoug h it doe s

n o t float,

it is buoyan t an d easily carried by wate r (ambe r wit h

air bubble s is


even mor e buoyant). Thus, ambe r woul d be carried downrive r wit h logs from

fallen ambe r trees

an d cast


as beac h drift

on the


or in the shallows


the delta into whic h the river empties. Ove r time , sediments woul d gradually

bur y the woo d and resin. Th e resin woul d become amber, blackened, charcoal-like lignite.

and the

woo d


Ambe r is often preserved this wa y because , unless protected, the surface of ambe r reacts wit h oxygen in th e atmospher e and, over man y years, develops an opaque crust. Given enoug h time , the entire piece will crumbl e away Dense , we t sediments of clay and sand are virtually devoid of oxygen and preserve ambe r extremely well. Today, most ambe r is found by searching for lignite in the sandstones, loose shales, an d mudston e remains of deltaic sediments. A rich ambe r deposit is thus a combinatio n of fortuitous factors involving concen- tration of the amber, appropriat e burial, as well as a forest nearby tha t produce d large quantities of the right kind of resin.






It is ironic tha t such a beautiful and mystical substanc e as ambe r is also one that is probably just a by-produc t of trees defending themselve s against insects and disease. Some trees, like ponderos a pine, produc e massive flows of resin whe n bar k beetle s chew galleries into the wood . Living relatives of the various ambe r trees, especially from the tropics, are copious resin producers. Perhaps this is related to mor e intensive insect attacks in the tropics, bu t insect attacks are not the only causes of resin production : heavy flows are also caused by wounds,

such as a snappe d tree limb or gashed trunk.

As the

resin wells to the surface,

it covers the woun d and hardens, thu s acting as a seal against further damag e by fungi an d insects. But before it hardens, small insects, spiders, and even tiny vertebrate s ma y become mire d in the resin and, eventually, encapsulated and mummified . Presumably, the same chemica l features of the resin tha t preserve it over millions of years are the one s tha t preserve the tiny organisms in it with such fidelity.

Resins vary tremendousl y in compositio n and have different fragrances and colors, bu t they all have terpenes, whic h are the compound s that become linked as the resin hardens into amber. Some terpene s are very volatile and dissipate quickly into the air as the resin hardens; others remain as a virtually inert part of the amber. It is the "bouquet " of various terpene s that renders the distinctive aroma s of resins and ambers. T h e special propertie s of resins have bee n recognized and exploited for

thousands of years. Ancient Egyptians used sandarac (from Callitris and Tetradinus trees) an d masti c (from Pistacea) as a base for pigments tha t wer e painted ont o jars and the walls of tombs. Th e grea t masters hardened their oil paints and coated their paintings wit h liquid damma r (a generic Malay wor d for all resins b u t generally used to refer to thos e from Southeast Asia). Varnishes and lacquers wer e produce d from groun d copal and amber. Resins and ambe r wer e also surrounde d by a rich medicinal mystique . Some native Nort h Americans used resins from cedars, firs, and pines for various ail- ments. Th e Maya even medicinally used resin from Hymenaea trees, which we n o w know is very similar to the ambe r from Mexico and the Dominican Republic. Joh n Cook, M.D., prescribes in his 1770 treatise, The Natural History of Lac, Amber, and Myrrh:

Many are the excellent virtues of Amber, especially when taken inwardly,




state of

the Brain,




the Headache,

sleep and convulsive disorders,



the suppression










hemorrhages or bleedings.

Cook's recommende d dosage wa s "60 or 80 drops for grow n persons, tw o or thre e time s a day, in any liquid." Cadawallade r Colden, a distinguished colonial


Amber in


physician in America, extolled the virtue s of an unlikely concoction of groun d pine resin steeped in water, called "Tar Water. " Several seventeenth-century treatises wer e writte n on this od d cordial as a treatmen t against smallpox, ulcers, diarrhea, and the "foulest distempers " (syphilis). (In an age like ours, in whic h folk medicine is revealing a wealth of medical insights from tropical plants, such remedie s should no t be immediately dismissed.) Few substances, though , riva l the mystical powers of the most famous resins, frankincense an d myrrh . Frankincens e is the resin from Boswellia trees, especially the species carterii, papyrifera, and thurifera. Th e finest frankincense an d perhap s the oldest harvests are from souther n Arabia. From her e the Hadramis woul d transport the materia l via camel caravans across the Arabian sands to Palestine and Egypt, and othe r

merchants woul d brin g it to Greec e and Rome , wher e it

wa s especially prized.

In the second century A.D., 3,000 ton s pe r year wer e shipped throughou t the

Mediterranean, most of it to th e Romans. Its value to the peopl e of Palestine is reflected in its mentio n in the Bible twenty-two times. Its extremely rich, resinous

aroma mad e it the finest

incens e available, and it wa s burne d (sometime s

continuously) in temple s an d even used as a base for perfumes. Th e value of frankincense vied with that of gold; it wa s offered to the infant Christ by the Magi along wit h gold and myrr h (Matthew 2:11).

Myrr h is from shrubb y Commiphora trees, which are found in the


regions as are Boswellia. Myrrh , too , wa s used as an incense, particularly durin g cremation, and as a base for perfumes, even as the anointing oil of the Hebrews in the Old Testament: "Your Go d ha s set yo u above your companions, by anointing you wit h the oil of joy. All you r robe s are fragrant wit h myrr h and aloes and cassia" (Psalms 45:7-8); and, "My lover is to me a sachet of myrr h resting betwee n my breasts " (Song of Songs 1:13). It wa s used by virtually all of the ancient people s of Asia Mino r in anointing and embalmin g the dead, including the celebrated mortician s of ancient Egypt. In his 1770 treatise, Joh n Coo k offers an anecdot e on the preservative propertie s of myrrh :



or any other small animal,

or an




be dipped several


successfully [sic]









be perfectly penetrated,

or embalmed







of Egyptian





entire for




It is commonl y assume d tha t hardene d resin turn s into ambe r at a specific age. Actually the process is a continuum, from freshly hardene d resins to those that are truly fossilized, and no single feature identifies at wha t age along that continuum the substanc e become s amber. Generally, material tha t is several million years old and olde r is sufficiently cross-linked and polymerize d to be classified as amber. Material tha t is only, say, several thousan d years old is often

referred to as copal, or subfossil resin. Copals are so incompletely cross-linked tha t a dro p of alcohol or othe r solvent make s the surface tacky Put close to a

h o t flame, copal

will readily melt; ambe r will soften an d blacken bu t no t liquefy.

T h e oldest copal deposit, from Mizunami, Japan, is approximately 33,000 years old. As expected, Mizunami copal displays characteristics betwee n thos e of ambe r millions of years old and copal merely hundred s of years old. Copals will take a high polish, bu t since they retain volatiles from the original resin that readily evaporate , after a few years the surface become s deeply crazed, like a dried lake bed. Th e extent of crazing depends on exposur e to hea t and air. Amber, too , will craze, bu t no t as quickly or deeply as copal. Copal crazes so deeply, in fact, tha t this is a reliable wa y to distinguish material in old collections tha t is called ambe r bu t in fact is copal.

Confusion surround s the use of the term copal, since some scientists also us e it to refer to fossil resins of certain botanical origins. Th e majo r deposits of subfossil resins, or copal, wer e forme d by tropical legume trees an d the araucarians (any of a genu s of conifer trees indigenous to Sout h Americ a and Australia), whic h are the tru e "copal trees " of chemists. Resins from these trees harde n rapidly upo n exposur e to air, are distinctively hard, and have a higher

A huge Agathis tree in New Zealand, photographed in 1936. Trees such as this were the source of kauri gum.

meltin g poin t tha n othe r resins (but no t mor e than amber). Yet anothe r term, resinite, whic h is muc h mor e genera l and in us e primarily by geologists, refers to any hardene d resin, whethe r ambe r or copal. Most copal occurs in the tropics or very we t temperat e areas, generally wher e the trees tha t forme d the copal still live. Since the tree species are extant, the source of the copals is quit e certain. Th e most famous deposits are thos e that have bee n commercially exploited in the past for varnishes (now almost entirely replaced by synthetic resins), on the Nort h Island of Ne w Zealand and in East Africa. Copals from these regions wer e also the sourc e of numerou s forgeries in "amber. "

On the

Nort h Island of Ne w Zealan d live hug e kauri trees, the

"sequoias "

of Ne w Zealand: Agathis australis and Dammara australis. Masses of resin from these trees ooz e on and unde r bar k (called kauri gum) and accumulat e on the forest floor. Buried by hundred s or thousand s of years of fallen needles, twigs, and branches, the subterranea n kauri gu m is sometime s found wher e the kauri forests no longe r exist. At the peak of the kauri-gum industry, prior to the tur n

of the century, trees woul d even be tapped, althoug h this wa s discouraged in orde r to protect the behemoths. Thousand s of itinerant "gumdiggers " traveled amon g the various "gumfields. " Most of the m wer e Austrian immigrants, some of the m poore r Ne w Zealanders, and an occasional Maori. Export bega n abou t 1850; in 1856, approximately 1,440 tons wer e exported, and by 1906, exports reached 275,319 tons. Lump s of kauri gu m ten to twelve pound s wer e no t uncommon , and the largest on e reporte d weighe d nearly on e hundre d pounds. Most copals derive from legume trees in the Caesalpinioidea grou p of families, especially the genu s Hymenaea. A related genus of trees, wit h the appropriat e name Copaifera, is the sourc e of copals from Ghana , Guinea , an d Sierra Leone in wester n Africa. Hymenaea copals occur in Minais Gerais, Brazil; eastern Dominican Republic; Colombia ; and East Africa. Deposits from Santander, Colombia , are harvested for some especially large pieces (others in Colombi a occur nea r Medellin and alon g the Magdalena River in Mariquita Province). Many of these impressive pieces contain termit e swarms and othe r insect inclusions and are sold to amateu r collectors as "Pliocene amber " (about tw o million years old), even thoug h carbon-14 dating indicates it is only several hundre d years old, like all the othe r Hymenaea copal deposits. Similarly, a clear Hymenaea copal from eastern Dominica n Republic is sold as Dominica n amber; true Dominica n ambe r come s from the norther n mountain s and is light yellow to dee p red. Whe n the people s of Asia Minor wer e tapping frankincense an d myrr h trees for incense, copal and freshly hardene d Hymenaea resin wer e burne d as an incense by native people s of Centra l and South America . Th e Maya burne d it in special incense pots, and the Yanomamo s of souther n Venezuela still collect the resin for incense.

Th e

only African


of Hymenaea,

H. verm

cosa (previously given its ow n genus, Trachy- lobium), occurs from Somalia to Tanzania, Zanziba r Island, Madagascar, and the islands of the Seychelles and Mauritius, some 1,000 miles off the East African coast. Aroun d the tur n of the twentiet h century, H. verrucosa copal was the basis for a very lucrative industry:

Opposite: Large piece of copal from Santander, Colombia, containing beetles. Two surfaces are polished flat. Height 4.5". American Museum of Natural History (Entomology)

Section of a copal tree (Hymenaea verrucosa)/rom Zanzibar, off the coast of Tanzania. Between the bark and the heartwood is almost pure resin. The heartwood contains beetle galleries impregnated with resin. Diameter 4.8". American Museum of Natural History (Entomology)

of the century, trees woul d even be tapped, althoug h this wa s discouraged in

In 1898, some 512,600 pound s wer e exporte d to German y for high-grade varnishes. Fresh pieces of the copal are a very pale, clear yellow, just like the Ne w Worl d Hymenaea copals. Th e American Museu m of Natura l History has a large collection of copal from Zanzibar, rich wit h insect inclusions. It has bee n suggested tha t some of the East African copal ma y be up to tw o million years old, but this is very unlikely.









The Era of the Dinosaurs: Mesozoic Amber

Th e oldest "amber, " perhap s mor e appropriately called a fossil resin, wa s hardly recognized as such whe n it wa s first discovered. Occasionally found lining some fine vessels from the trunk s of Myeloxylon or othe r carboniferous pteridosperms (tree or seed ferns) are microscopically fine, black hairlike fibers tha t are actually resins some 320 million years old, althoug h they are physically and chemically unlike any othe r fossil resin known , even the ambers. Th e second-oldest fossil resin exists in microscopi c quantitie s in 260-million-year-old Permia n limestone nea r the Chekarda River, in the wester n piedmon t of the Ural Mountains. From the Triassic period of Europ e and Nort h Americ a derive dark red, highly brittle ambers, forme d perhap s from extinct cycads like Pterophyllum. Thes e Triassic resins, althoug h considered true ambers, are also chemically unlike the younge r ambers forme d from conifers and flowering trees. On e of the Triassic deposits is from Niederosterreich, Austria, abou t 60 miles southwest of Vienna. Another, the Raibler Sandstone Formatio n in Schliersee, Bavaria, is abou t 220 to 230 million years old. By this time , large vertebrate s and most of the moder n orders of flying insects ha d appeared. No t surprisingly, microscopi c remains of organisms are found in the Schliersee amber, bu t they are of primitive organisms, such as bacteria, protozoa , fungal spores, and unidentified plant spores. An insect in ambe r this old woul d be sensational. O n e of the biologically most interesting chapters in the history of Earth is the Cretaceous period, 140 to 65 million years ago. It wa s at the en d of the Cretaceous tha t the dinosaurs died out. Mor e important, it wa s durin g the Cretaceous tha t ther e occurre d explosive radiations of the flowering plants, or angiosperms, and man y moder n families of insects. Today, the insects and flowering plants are supreme rulers on land: they compris e three-quarters of all life forms, as well as mor e biomass an d mor e anatomica l and chemica l novelties than all othe r organisms combined . Withou t them, the worl d woul d be unrecognizable . A fundamenta l belief amon g biologists has bee n tha t the evolution of flowering plants and insects closely affected each other. Althoug h there is some recent skepticism (that moder n group s of insects evolved before flowering plants), most evidence indicates tha t the appearanc e of at least certain kinds of insects—like some beetles, flies, and certainly the bees, moths, an d

DEPOSITS OF THE WORLD The Era of the Dinosaurs: Mesozoic Amber Th e oldest "amber, "

Fossil cone from the Upper Jurassic or Lower Cretaceous (c.140 million years old), studded with amber. It was found in the Karzhantav Range, Chimkent region of southern Kazakhstan. The original cone must have been filled with resin. Length of cone .9". Paleontological Institute, Moscow

Opposite: Major amber deposits of the world





A small stud of amber above the branch of an extinct Metasequoia tree that may have

A small stud of amber above the branch of an extinct Metasequoia tree that may have produced it. This fossil, from the Jurassic period of Russia, is about 160 million years old. Length 2.6". Paleontological Institute, Moscow

Opposite: Plate from O. Warburg,

Beitrage zur Kenntniss der Vegeta-

tion des Siid und Ostasiatischen

Monsungebietes, 1900, showing leaves, cones, and cone scales of the conifer Agathis. Araucarian trees such as Agathis are considered important sources of the ambers from the Mesozoic Era.






butterflies—wa s linked wit h the evolution of angiosperm plants, an d vice versa, and tha t this too k place during the Cretaceous period. Fossils in Cretaceou s ambe r have bee n a particularly revealing windo w for understandin g this relationship. Even thoug h angiosperms wer e diversifying during the Cretaceous, the landscape at this time wa s probably dominate d by cycads an d conifers. All of the Cretaceou s ambers are certainly coniferous, for arborescent (treelike) angiosperms probably ha d no t evolved until the late Cretaceous; prior to this, they wer e herbs and bushes. In fact, for most of the Cretaceou s deposits tha t have bee n chemically studied, the ambe r is though t to have bee n forme d by an araucarian or araucarianlike tree. Th e Araucariacea e is on e of six families in the Coniferae (three other, large families being the Pinaceae [pines, larches, spruces, and hemlocks], Cupressacea e [cedars, cypresses, junipers], and Taxodiaceae [sequoias and bald cypresses]). Ther e are only two gener a of araucarians living today, comprising thirty-one species, thre e of the species bein g amon g the ten tallest trees in the world (betwee n 70 and 90 feet tall). Th e family is relict, confined no w to portion s of the Souther n Hemisphere . Fossils of Araucaria from the Jurassic to the Tertiary, however, are scattered aroun d the world. Th e family is a goo d candidat e for the botanical origins of man y Cretaceous ambers since, today, araucarians produc e copious amounts of resin tha t become s strongly hardene d soo n after exposur e to air, whic h preserve s it well.

A forest in New Zealand.

With the

exception of the Maori native in

the forest, this is what a Cretaceous forest might have looked like some

  • 90 million years ago, with tree ferns,

cycads, and araucarian trees.

In the absenc e of mor e information on conifer resins, however, it should no t be taken for grante d tha t any Cretaceou s deposit is definitely of araucarian origin. For example , the 75-million-year-old ambe r from the Fruitland Formation in the San Jua n Basin, Ne w Mexico, is on e of the rare cases wher e the ambe r has a definitive origin, since it is found amon g and embedde d in logs and stumps of the ambe r tree, an d it is Taxodiaceae. Ther e is a woeful lack of plant megafossils accompanyin g most ambe r deposits, including Cretaceou s ones. Inclusions of plant fragments in ambe r can provide circumstantial or confirming evidence of the tree of its origin, but such inclusions are muc h rare r in Cretaceou s tha n they are in Tertiary ambers. For example , ther e are no cone s or conifer flowers know n for any Cretaceous amber, althoug h woo d fragments and portions of needles and twigs occur in some . All of the Cretaceou s ambers are very brittle and highly fractured. Special preparatio n technique s are usually required in orde r to grind and polish a piece for a certain view of an inclusion, or even to kee p the piece from disintegrating. Cretaceou s ambe r is notoriou s for becomin g crumbl y whe n exposed to the atmospher e for several years. It is best preserved and prepared by embeddin g it in a syntheti c resin.

24 • Amber in Nature
• Amber


althoug h Cretaceou s ambe r is found nea r Vienna and in Salzburg,



is the

100-million-year-old ambe r of France tha t is bette r

know n and probably mor e abundant. Occurrin g in the Paris and Aquitanian

basins of northwester n France, nea r Bezonnais, Durtal, an d Fouras, it resemble s

in bot h composition and kinds of inclusions the 90-to-94-million-year-old

ambe r from certain deposits in Ne w Jersey. Cloudiness of the ambe r is du e to

microscopi c bubbles, and pyrite ("fool's gold" ) has intrude d into cracks and even

some of the insect inclusions. Th e pyrite ha s allowed high-resolution X-raying

of some insects, since it is muc h dense r tha n the surroundin g ambe r an d has

replaced the original insect in faithful detail. As in most Cretaceou s ambers, the

fossilized insects within are tiny, less tha n one-tenth of an inch lon g on average,

although some of the most interesting ones, like the termite s an d lacewings,

are quite large. Th e insects are no t plentiful. In the French amber, for example ,

o n e poun d of raw ambe r yields approximately twent y insects and insect parts.

Cretaceous ambe r from Canada , by contrast, yields abou t twic e this numbe r

of inclusions.

North .




Th e most abundan t source s of Cretaceous ambe r in Nort h

Americ a are Alaska, several localities in Canada , and Ne w Jersey.

In 1955, a grou p from the University of California, Berkeley, collected ambe r

from the shores of the Kuk, Omalik, an d several othe r rivers on the norther n

Alaskan Coastal Plain. Th e paleontologica l value of the Alaskan materia l is

limited becaus e it is strande d on river shores; as a result, the pieces are small an d

heavily weathered, and a specific age is indeterminate .

T h e largest deposits of ambe r from Canada have yielded an exciting array

of insects and othe r inclusions. Th e first deposit to be intensively studied, as

early as

1891, wa s at Ceda r Lake,

Manitoba .

Th e

ambe r wa s


abundan t (for a

Cretaceous deposit) tha t in the early 1900s nearly a to n wa s collected for varnish.

In the

1930s, Frank Carpenter, the grea t paleoentomologist from Harvard,

collected several hundre d pound s a t Ceda r Lake. Anothe r large collection of the

amber, muc h mor e closely studied tha n Harvard's, is in Ottawa . Since thos e

collections wer e made , Ceda r Lake has bee n dammed , inundating the deposits.

It has always bee n suspected tha t the Ceda r Lake ambe r wa s redeposited from

a distant source. Ambe r deposits from Medicine Hat, Alberta, in the Foremost

Formation (about 75 to 78 million years ago) are chemically very similar to

the Ceda r Lake amber. Thoug h presumabl y no t the sourc e of the Ceda r Lake

amber, the Medicine Ha t ambe r ma y b e contemporaneou s an d o f the same

botanical origin. Most recently, rich deposits of ambe r in Grassy Lake, Alberta,

have yielded numerou s tiny fossils, including a bird feather in on e piece. Aphids

are the most commo n insects in this amber, and amon g the most interesting are

a pseudoscorpion, a praying mantis, an d the oldest know n mosquito .

Th e United States ha s several Cretaceou s deposits, althoug h only in Ne w

Jersey is ambe r found in appreciable quantities. Th e first insect discovered from

Nort h America n amber, a caddis fly, Dolophilus praemissus Cockerell, wa s identified in 1916

Nort h America n amber, a caddis fly, Dolophilus praemissus Cockerell, wa s

identified in

1916 in ambe r from Coffee Sand, Tennessee; ironically, no recent

collections have bee n mad e of this amber. A significant ambe r deposit also

occurs in the Black Cree k Formatio n (about 75 million years old) nea r


Nort h Carolina. Ambe r from nea r Paden (Tishoming o County),

Opposite: Crude amber embedded in

marcasite, a form of pyrite,from New

Jersey. Length of largest piece 5.1".

American Museum of Natural History


Mississippi, in the Uppe r McSha n Formatio n of the Eutaw Grou p (about 90

million years old), is found in small pieces sometime s up to

1.5 inches long.

This ambe r is associated wit h fossilized woo d of Cupressaceae , Pinaceae , an d

Taxodiaceae, so it is probably no t derived from an araucarian tree. Th e ambe r is

yellow to dark brown ,

mostly cloudy,

an d


bee n found to

contain a host of

fungal spores

and hypha e

bu t


insect as

of yet.

Ambe r from the Atlantic Coasta l Plain of the eastern United States ha s

Above: Variations in New Jersey amber:

a large drop-shaped piece; opaque and

oxidized pieces (center of top row and

left column); and various transparent

pieces. Length of largest piece 3.6".

American Museum of Natural History


been know n for mor e tha n 150 years, the first report of it bein g in 1821. Tha t

report described a piece found in clay nea r the shor e of Cap e Sable, Maryland,

containing wha t wa s believed to be a gall mad e by scale insects.

Ambe r has also

been found on Cap e Cod, Lon g Island, and Staten Island. Historically, large

deposits on Staten Island wer e discovered in ope n pits mine d for clay in brick





manufacture . Thes e hug e pits are no w erode d in and covered wit

manufacture . Thes e hug e pits are no w erode d in and covered wit h woodland.

T h e ambe r wa s purportedl y so plentiful tha t workers woul d pile it in barrels

durin g the winte r and bur n it to kee p warm!

Ambe r occurs in similar abandone d clay pits in Cretaceous exposure s of Ne w

Jersey, wher e the most abundan t Nort h America n deposits are found. Chemica l

analysis identifies the botanical sourc e of the ambe r as araucarian; however,

twigs in the ambe r and the microscopi c structur e of lignite found wit h the ambe r

(sometime s the ambe r is found in the fossilized wood ) indicate Cupressaceae .

Ambe r deposits vary from 65 million to nearly 95 million years old, althoug h an

unusua l Tertiary fossil "resin," wit h a consistency like solid, hard plastic, is

Wood found with amber from New

Jersey, presumably of the amber trees

themselves. Length of longest piece

10". American Museum of Natural

History (Entomology)

know n from Ne w Jersey. Derived from the witch-haze l and sweet-gum family

(Hamamelidaceae), it is compose d of a materia l like polystyrene and is similar to

siegburgite, know n from Europ e since the late nineteent h century.

T h e true , resinous Cretaceou s ambe r from Ne w Jersey is clear red to yellow.

In some deposits, 70 percent of the materia l is turbid, being clouded with small

bubble s an d particles of debris swept off the bar k as the resin streamed dow n

the tree trunk.

Ambe r and othe r fossils from the Ne w Jersey Cretaceous are revealing ne w

insights into the flowering, literally, of the Cretaceous period. Tw o of the most

importan t insect fossils are know n from the Ne w Jersey amber. On e is a very

primitive ant, Sphecomyrmafreyi ("Frey's was p ant"), described in 1966 by

Harvar d entomologists. Althoug h olde r fossil ants have bee n described since

then , this is still the oldest definitive ant. Th e ants are a successful grou p today,

wit h abou t 14,000 living species, and they are pivotal components of some

ecosystems, such as tropical rain forests.

T h e othe r fossil is a bee , Trigona prisca,

which, incredibly, belongs to an

evolutionarily recent group , the stingless bees, or meliponines. This be e fossil

manufacture . Thes e hug e pits are no w erode d in and covered wit

wa s unearthe d in an old Museu m collection; chemica l analyses confirmed it wa s

authenti c Ne w Jersey amber, as the label indicated (specifically, from Kinkora,

N e w Jersey). Since the piece wa s no t precisely documented , however, a dating

mor e exact tha n 65 to 80 million years old has no t bee n possible. Nonetheless,

such an anomalousl y advanced insect of this age raised controversy, especially

since it ha d serious implications for the evolution of flowering plants. Since all

bee s forage on pollen an d nectar, such an advanced be e in the Cretaceous woul d

indicate a correspondin g antiquity for the angiosperms. Despite the chemical

analyses, some scientists remai n skeptical abou t the authenticity of the specimen.

In the 1990s, ne w excavations in Ne w Jersey, from the same Cretaceous

deposits tha t yield muc h of the amber, have revealed a stunning array of

90-million-year-old flowers. The y are preserved, no t in amber, bu t in clay. Th e

The oldest known bee, Trigona prisca,

fossilized in New Jersey amber.

American Museum of Natural History


flowers are tiny and mad e entirely of carbon, probably transformed this way

whe n forest fires "charcoalified" wha t lay beneat h the forest leaf litter. Preser- '

vation is perfect: stamens, anthers, pollen, stigmas, petals, glands, and the cells

that mak e them up are all visible. In man y cases these flowers are bette r preserved





These tiny carbonized flowers and a beetle head (lengths of each about. 1"), preserved in clays

These tiny carbonized flowers and a beetle head (lengths of each












Right, above: Detrusandra, a relative of magnolias, is much simpler

photographed with a scanning electron microscope.




and was perhaps wind pollinated.





Right, below: Head of a cupedoid beetle revealing intricate sculpturing.

Left: Ericalean flower shown intact (above) and "dissected " (below). This mode of fossilization is the closest equivalent to preservation in

It has petals, round sepal glands along the petals, and nectaries at

amber. These and similar fossils complement those preserved in the

the bases of the stamens, which were presumably used for attracting New Jersey amber, which is of similar age.

insect pollinators, such as bees.





Famous ant, Sphecomyrma freyi, fossilized in New Jersey amber. It is one of the most primitive

Famous ant, Sphecomyrma freyi,

fossilized in New Jersey amber. It is one

of the most primitive of known ants.

Museum of Comparative Zoology,

Harvard University

tha n example s in Tertiary ambers. Man y of the flowers are from plants surpris-

ingly advanced evolutionarily, belongin g to tropical families and othe r groups,

whic h ma y explain such an advanced be e in Ne w Jersey amber.

For example ,

ther e are flowers of laurels (Lauraceae), Chloranthaceae , tiny magnolia-like

flowers, and from plants related to the heath s (family Ericaceae) and the witch-

Opposite, above: Tiny bird feather in

New Jersey amber. The oldest known

birds are about 50 million years older

than the one that dropped this feather.



of Natural




hazel family,

Hamamelidaceae .

Pollen in the ericalean flowers wa s held togethe r

in clumps by threads of a viscous substance . This is strictly a feature of flowers

tha t are pollinated by insects, whic h serve to mak e the clumps of pollen adhere

to the hairs

of an

insect like


Others have glands tha t secrete scents to

attract insects. Th e hamamelidaceou s fossil flowers have nectaries nea r the

petals, whic h are othe r hallmarks of flowers pollinated by insects.

Besides a variety of small organisms in the amber, the ne w excavations

of ambe r in Ne w Jersey have found othe r insects tha t belon g to living genera .

Opposite, below: The oldest known mush-

room, in New Jersey amber. American

Museum of Natural History (Entomology)

At least some species of insects ha d close relatives tha t extended back nearly

100 million years. We are gradually learning tha t the Ne w Jersey be e is no t

anomalousl y old: the Cretaceou s is anomalousl y young .






^ mon S seasn o r e deposits i n Kuji, Japan, can b e found 85-million-year-

old amber, from the Taneichi and Kunitan Formations. Th e ambe r

occurs wit h marin e fossils like mosasau r teeth and ammonite s (extinct relatives

of the nautilus) an d come s in a remarkabl e variety of colors and opacity, muc h

of it an appealing carame l color. It is the oldest ambe r in the worl d from which

objects have bee n carved, on e reason bein g the large size of some pieces. On e

piece, found in 1927 nea r Kuji, weighs 44 pounds; another, found in 1941 (and

n o w in the Nationa l Science Museu m in Tokyo), weighs 35 pounds. Both of

thes e large pieces are opaqu e yellowish orange . Even olde r ambe r (abou t 120

million years old) has bee n found in Choshi, Japan. All the Cretaceous ambers

have some insects; on e piece from Kuji ha s portion s of a bird feather.





Variations in the 85-million-year-old Kuji amber from Japan. Length of largest piece 3 ". American Museum

Variations in the 85-million-year-old Kuji amber

from Japan. Length of largest piece 3 ". American

Museum of Natural History (Entomology),

courtesy of Kuji Amber Museum

Opposite: Collecting late Cretaceous amber from

Kuji, Japan





Collecting Cretaceous amber from the

Taimyr Peninsula,

northern Siberia

Above: En route to Romanikha, eastern

Taimyr. Larches here are the northern-

most forests.

Middle: Baikura-neru Bay, on the edge

of Lake Taimyr in

the center of the


This site has yielded most

of the fossiliferous amber.



(Amber Mountain),

eastern Taimyr. Digging amberiferous

lignite out of a

"lens" embedded in a

wall of sand and clay

Opposite: Screening and washing

the amber at Yantardakh. The person

on the left is examining pieces for

inclusions with a hand lens.





Collecting Cretaceous amber from the Taimyr Peninsula, northern Siberia Above: En route to Romanikha, eastern Taimyr.


P rorjaDr y the largest deposit of Cretaceou s ambe r in the worl d come s

from the Taimy r Peninsula in norther n Russia. Th e oldest report of


ambe r wa s mad e

as early


1730. Of the

four mai n deposits on or nea r

the Taimy r Peninsula, one , abou t 80 million years old, is from the Khatanga

Depression, also the site of the northernmost forests (larches).

In bot h wester n

and central Taimyr are

100-million-year-old deposits from the Cenomanian -

epoch, Dolganian and Begichev Formations. Anothe r is from the Arctic Institute

Island, just off the west coast of Taimyr. Scientists at the Paleontologica l

Institute in Moscow have spent decade s excavating and screening this ambe r

for the countless tiny organisms fossilized in it.

„, „ Th e oldest ambe r in the world containing insects and othe r The
Th e oldest ambe r in the world containing insects and othe r
The Middle East

larger organisms come s from the Middle East, specifically

Lebanon, althoug h similar ambe r occurs in Israel and Jordan. Th e ambe r is

chemically similar in all of thes e areas an d is from the Neocomia n age (Lowe r

Cretaceous, abou t 120 to 130 million years old). Th e largest amounts of ambe r

are found a t Dah r al-Baidha, betwee n Beirut and Damascus, and aroun d

Jezzine. Only tw o collections of Lebanes e ambe r exist, on e a t the Museu m fur

Naturkunde , Stuttgart, the othe r bein g the Acra Collection, part of whic h is

at the American Museu m of Natura l History.

Screening and preparing inclusions in Cretaceous ambers is extremely

tedious becaus e of the man y fractures. Th e Acras spent several decade s

processing approximately 200 pound s of raw ambe r and accumulate d a

wonderful collection of mor e tha n a thousan d fossiliferous pieces.

In tha t

collection are man y exciting earliest geological records of various arthropods,

such as termite s and the oldest definitive moth s (including a caterpillar).

These fossilized organisms in Lebanese amber, 125 to 130 million years old, represent the oldest amber

These fossilized organisms in Lebanese

amber, 125 to 130 million years old,

represent the oldest amber in the world

containing insects and other macroscopic

forms of life.

Most are less than

. 1" long.

Acra Collection

Above: Polyxenid millipede

Right: Mites and pseudoscorpion

Below: The oldest known caterpillar

Opposite, above: Male sandfly

Opposite, below: Small cockroach

36 ' Amber in Nature
These fossilized organisms in Lebanese amber, 125 to 130 million years old, represent the oldest amber

We are

certain tha t the moth s are tru e lepidopterans becaus e the ambe r ha s

preserved even the microscopi c structur e of the tiny scales on the wings.

T h e caterpillar ha s the tiny spiggotlike spinneret at the tip of its head,

whic h almost certainly woul d no t be preserved in a fossilized impression in

rock. Most commo n in Lebanes e ambe r are mal e scale insects, midges,

parasitic wasps, and psocopteran bark lice. Rarities include pseudoscorpions,

millipedes, and stinging wasps. Th e oldest DN A ever recovered wa s from a

weevil in this collection.



Amon g the dozen s of major ambe r deposits scattered aroun d the world, most

are from the Tertiary period, whic h extends from 65 million years ago to the

present. Even within this period, most deposits derive from the Eocene , a few

from the Oligocene and Miocene ages, and even fewer from the othe r ages in

the Tertiary. Th e botanical sources, colors, and composition of thes e ambers are

extremely varied, unlike the earlier Cretaceous ambers, which are mostly a brittle,

transparen t yellow to red (perhaps reflecting mor e uniform botanical origins).

Tertiary Deposits Amon g the dozen s of major ambe r deposits scattered aroun d the

Above: Excavating the largest piece

of amber in the world, in Sarawak. It

is now on display at the Museum fur

Naturkunde, Stuttgart.

Chunk of amber from Sarawak.


opaque and blackish, it is from the

same locality as the piece of amber

above. Height 4.4". American Museum

of Natural History (courtesy of

Museum fur Naturkunde, Stuttgart)





Tertiary Deposits Amon g the dozen s of major ambe r deposits scattered aroun d the

Left: Giant Shorea curtisii tree on

Brunei. Note two men in the tree, about

midway up on the left. Burmese legend

holds that Gaudama died and perhaps

was even born in a grove of Shoreas:

Leaves, flowers, and fruit of Shorea aptera.

Extinct species of Shorea or some other

dipterocarp tree apparently gave rise to

the amber from Sarawak in Malaysia and

Arkansas in the United States.

Amber in Nature • 39


Th e

largest piece of ambe r in the world,

deriving from the lower to mid-

Miocen e Nyalau Formatio n of Sarawak, Malaysia, wa s discovered on

Decembe r 3, 1991. It weighs mor e tha n 150 pound s and, to transport it to the

Museu m fur Naturkund e in Stuttgart, Germany, wher e it is no w on display, it

h a d to be sawed into several sections. Th e ambe r itself is similar to dens e coal,

impregnate d wit h the fossil resin. Upo n polishing, various colors of the Sarawak

ambe r becom e apparent: white , pink, orange , green, even violet, althoug h a

clear yellow is rare . Microscopic reddish-brown droplets impart the pinkish

opacity. Th e Merit-Perla area, wher e the piece wa s recovered, is mine d for coal,

a n d ambe r is found amon g some of the coal seams. Bright, yellowish ambe r

occurs in some seams, in pieces 1 to 40 centimeters in diameter. Th e ambe r

found so far has contained centipedes, spiders, beetles, ants and wasps, an d

various flies. Th e Dipterocarpacea e family is the apparent tree sourc e of this

amber. Man y species of dipterocarps gro w in Asia, wher e they-are valuable

Amber mines in northern Burma,

c. 1930

timbe r trees becaus e of their girth, straight trunks, and resinous wood , which

helps prevent termit e infestation.

40 • Amber in Nature
Historically, the best know n Asian ambe r is burmite, from the Hukawn g valley of

Historically, the best know n Asian ambe r is burmite,

from the Hukawn g

valley of norther n Burma (now Myanmar). It wa s reported in Europea n scientific

literature as early as 1836, althoug h minin g ha d bee n don e her e for at least a

millennium. By the 1930s, man y of the ambe r mines, at least nea r Maingkwa n

The largest piece of transparent

amber, which is very deep red, from

Burma (Myanmar). It weighs 33.5

pounds and is 19.5" long. Natural

History Museum, London

and the village of Shingban in the Hukawn g valley, consisted of hundred s of

abandone d pits overgrown by dens e jungle . At that time , the largest working s

wer e at Khanjamaw, wher e 150 Kachins, Shans, and Shan-Chines e wer e digging

500 to 600 pits. Most of the pits wer e 30 to 40 feet deep, occasionally 50 feet,

depth bein g constrained by the appearanc e of a dee p sand layer an d water,

which seeps in at 40 feet. To kee p pit walls from collapsing, elaborat e screens

of bambo o poles supporte d by woode n posts wer e needed .

Today, burmit e ha s almost legendary appeal, in part becaus e the deposits are

no longer mine d and the supply is generally unavailable. (This ma y be becaus e

the mine s are exhausted; information on Chines e ambe r minin g is sketchy.) Th e

appeal is also due to burmite's properties. From the few scientific collections

of it existing (the best bein g at the Natura l History Museum, London), we kno w





tha t it wa s highly fossiliferous. Fourtee n local varieties wer e recognized, most of

the m a rich, transparent red wit h strong ultraviolet fluorescence. Burmit e is also

harde r tha n most othe r ambers and is excellent for carving.

In fact,

muc h

of it

wa s exporte d to Yunnan, in souther n China , the n to Beijing, for carving various

objets d'art. Th e largest specimen of transparent ambe r in the world is a deep-red

piece of burmit e weighin g 33.5 pounds, in the mineralog y departmen t of the

Natura l Histor y Museum, London . Discovered in 1860, it was presented to the

museu m in 1940.

Interestingly, ther e is no historical mentio n of ambe r from Liaoning Province,

China , for us e in carving ornamenta l objects. Ambe r her e occurs wit h coal in

the Guchenzg i Formatio n of Fu Shun.


to o exists


large pieces an d is highly

fossiliferous. Burmit e and Fu Shun ambe r wer e bot h formed in the Eocene ,

and the botanica l sources are unknown .





* s



know n for its productio n o f copal,

bu t the only Tertiary

deposit on the continen t wit h tru e ambe r come s from southeaster n

Nigeria nea r Umuahia , in the Amek i Formatio n of the Eocene . Th e ambe r is

dark red, transparen t to opaque . No biological inclusions are known , no r is the

plant source .


^ e


P '





overwhelmin g size o f th e

Baltic deposits, Sicilian ambe r has

its ow n allure. Ambe r from the Simeto River of Sicily, nea r Catania, and

the Salso River (called simetite) is renowne d for its varied, dee p colors: red, blue,

a n d smok y green. Arnold Buffum, wh o extolled the virtue s of Sicilian ambe r in

his boo k The Tears of the Heliades, amassed a wonderful collection of European

ambe r objets d'art in the late nineteent h century, whic h are in the Museum of

Fine Arts, Boston. Othe r collections of simetite, bu t of mineralogica l specimens,

are a t the America n Museu m of Natura l History. Althoug h some pieces are

indee d the dee p red tha t Buffum described, ther e are no pieces with distinctive

gree n and blue hue s in the Boston collection, perhap s becaus e these colors have

faded. Sicilian ambe r is younge r (Oligocene to Miocene ) than the Baltic amber,

and the deposits are muc h smaller. Simetite is collected only rarely today,

althoug h it is har d to imagin e tha t an exhausted supply is the reason, for ther e

never wa s organized or mechanize d minin g of it like that done for ambe r on

the Samland Peninsula of the Baltic Sea.

Obscur e by Europea n ambe r standards is rumanite,


the Carpathian

Mountain s of Romania . Cretaceou s and Tertiary deposits of Romania n ambe r

have bee n found. Th e tru e Tertiary rumanit e has propertie s and colors similar to

simetite and come s largely from areas surroundin g Colti, in Buzau District. Else-

wher e in the Carpathians, in the Lvov and Ivano-Frankovsk regions, nea r the

tow n of Verkhnii Sinevidnyi, are Eocene deposits of succinite. Simetite and most

rumanit e lack succinic acid, and the botanical sourc e of the ambers is uncertain.







North America



Althoug h overshadowe d by the vast deposits of the Baltic




region, Nort h America n deposits from bot h the Cretaceou s an d

the Tertiary periods are still quit e varied. Some deposits are surprisingly rich.

T h e northernmost ambe r in th e worl d occurs in early Eocen e deposits of Axel

Heibur g and Ellesmere islands, in the Canadia n Arctic. Th e ambe r forme d in

the permafrost and can include remarkabl y well-preserved tree stumps, cones,

and othe r plant fossils, as well as the fossils of extinct catfish, snapping turtles, an d

plagiomerid mammals related to early primates, evidence of the subtropical

.. North America , . Althoug h overshadowe d by the vast deposits of the Baltic
.. North America , . Althoug h overshadowe d by the vast deposits of the Baltic

Cones and branches of the relict, living

pine Pseudolarix kempferi. Forty-

million-year-old cones of an extinct

Pseudolarix from the northernmost

islands of Axel Heiburg and Ellesmere

have amber with large amounts of

succinic acid. Thus, Pseudolarix may

be the kind of tree that gave rise to

Baltic amber, whose botanical origins

have been controversial.





Right: Landscape on Axel Heiburg

Island in the Arctic Circle, where 50-

million-year-old forests

are preserved

in the permafrost with amber

Amber from Axel Heiburg Island, with

a fossilized cone in the center, perhaps

from the kind of tree that produced the

amber. Most of the amber is heavily

weathered. Length of cone .8".

American Museum of Natural History


Right: Landscape on Axel Heiburg Island in the Arctic Circle, where 50- million-year-old forests are preserved





Variety in the 40-million-year-old amber from

central Arkansas. Some pieces have been

polished, revealing transparency; others are

completely opaque. Length of largest piece 1.7".

American Museum of Natural History






remain s beneat h the frozen desolation. Th e ambe r itself is no t so well preserved,

muc h of it having an oxidized, powdery, dee p crust,

with a small

core of

transparen t yellow amber.

Ambe r from

fossilized Pseudolarix trees found her e

contains succinic acid in amounts similar to tha t found in Baltic amber, which

ma y relate thes e trees to the botanical sources of Baltic amber.

T h e largest Nort h America n deposit of ambe r is from the Eocen e Claiborne

Formatio n of Malvern County, Arkansas. Th e ambe r is in two locations, on e

an expansive pit mine d for clay to manufactur e bricks, the othe r an abandone d

clay pit. In the active mine , pieces up to thre e inches long can be found on the

surface of a dark clay impregnate d wit h lignite. If the appropriat e stratum is

exposed, it is possible to collect several pound s off the surface in on e day. This

ambe r is very distinctive for its weathere d rind and dense internal flow lines,

whic h are also weathered . Intact ambe r in the core of a piece can be red to

yellow; the yellow ambe r is mor e often mad e slightly cloudy by microscopi c

bubbles. Myriad arthropod s are preserved in the amber, but finding the m

require s diligence becaus e of the opacity of the material. Chemistr y suggests

tha t the botanica l sourc e is in the Dipterocarpaceae , which is intriguing since no

trees in the family gro w no w in Nort h America .

A muc h smaller bu t interesting deposit of Tertiary ambe r is found in the

mid-Eocen e Tige r Mountai n Formatio n nea r Seattle, Washington, in a small,

steep exposur e in heavily woode d state property. Th e amber, a dark, transparen t

red, is extremely brittle and fractures easily whe n extracted from the clay substrate.

Althoug h no insects have bee n found in it, the man y plant fibers in the ambe r

are similar to thos e on the bark of cedars in the Cupressaceae, whic h suggests

tha t the ambe r wa s forme d from a tree in the same family.







Th e largest deposits of ambe r in the world, an d the one s exploited the longest,

derive from the shores of the Baltic Sea in norther n Europe . Ambe r also

washe s up on the shore s of eastern England and Scotland.

Baltic ambe r ha s

an exceptionally rich history of ancient trade , supporte d by guilds of ambe r

craftsmen and stunnin g work s of art.

It even figures in Gree k mythology.







Th e

tru e

Baltic ambe r is found on or nea r the shore s

of the easter n Baltic Sea, particularly on the Samland

Peninsula. Th e peninsula, a mer e 400 squar e miles in size, has produce d 90

percent of all the ambe r in Europe . Both its norther n bay (Kurisches Haff)

and southern bay (Frisches Haff) are nearly entirely closed off to the Baltic Sea.

Beaches on the side of the peninsul a facing the sea are narrow, wit h steep,

vertical cliffs. Ambe r washe d up on the beaches, especially after storms, ha s

bee n harvested for at least te n millennia. A few hug e pieces have bee n found;

Baltic Amber Th e largest deposits of ambe r in the world, an d the one

Samland Peninsula,

Baltic coast





Opposite: Section of Baltic amber encrusted with barnacles, with one end cut and polished. Pieces like

Opposite: Section of Baltic

amber encrusted with barnacles,

with one end cut and polished.

Pieces like this demonstrate that

Baltic amber was in marine

water after being eroded from

sediment. Length 3.4". American

Museum of Natural History

(Earth and Planetary Sciences)

Plate from Nathanael Sendelio's

1742 monograph on Baltic amber,

Historia Succinorum Corpora

aliena involventium et Naturae




depicts plant,

wood, and insect inclusions, as

well as several pieces with sea-

weed. Marine organisms became

attached to some pieces of amber

that were deposited by seawater.






one , weighin g 21.5 pound s (now in the Humbold t Museum, Berlin), wa s

discovered in 1890 at the mout h of the Ode r River. Ambe r is stranded on othe r

Baltic shore s as well and, occasionally, even the eastern shores of England. In

Nort h Jutland, Denmark , for instance, 3,000 pound s wer e collected this way

in 1800, and, after several stormy years betwee n 1822 and 1825, on e Danish

merchan t collected 686 pound s at Ringkjobing (one piece purportedl y weighed

27 pounds). Th e record, though , goe s to the Samland Peninsula; durin g one day

Large piece of Baltic amber, left un-

polished to show the natural fissures,

with a necklace of polished amber

beads. Length 9.8". American

Museum of Natural History (Earth

and Planetary Sciences)

in 1862, 4,400 pound s wer e collected off beache s in the town of Palmnicken

(now Yantarny). It is no t coincidental tha t the most productive ambe r min e in

history wa s established in tha t town abou t ten years later.

Ambe r ha d bee n collected largely from the Samland beaches up until the mid-

nineteent h century, whe n tw o peopl e mad e a major impac t on massive-scale

Such a large piece of amber would

have been prized by artisans for sculpt-

ing a figure or other decorative piece.

minin g of amber. In 1850, Konigsberg's Society for Physical Economy hired

geologist Georg e Zaddach , wh o described ho w the ambe r wa s concentrate d i n

layers of the blau Erde ("blue earth, " actually greenish and formed by glauconite )

50 • Amber in Nature
Two pieces of Baltic amber with surfaces polished. One piece is a mottled, opaque yellow-orange with

Two pieces of Baltic amber with

surfaces polished. One piece is a

mottled, opaque yellow-orange with

deep pits. The other is mostly

transparent with milky swirls on the

interior. Length of larger piece 4.4".

American Museum of Natural History

(Earth and Planetary Sciences)

Amber in



The Palmnicken amber mine, c. 1985

The Palmnicken amber mine, c. 1985 dating back to the Eocene epoch, 40 million years ago.

dating back to the Eocene epoch, 40 million years ago. Th e blau Erde everywher e

wa s 16 feet below sea level, and some 130 to 150 feet below the topsoil. Mor e

important, this layer wa s submerge d on the floor of the Baltic Sea and reached

the Samlan d Peninsula at only a few locations, one being Palmnicken. Wha t wa s

washe d up on the shore s wa s merely cast off from the bed of the sea; a muc h

richer sourc e remaine d to be tapped. In 1854, enginee r Wilhelm Stantien from

Meme l bega n dredgin g operations for the amber, 35 feet dow n from th e floors

of the Haffs. By 1865, the minin g firm of Stantien and Becker wa s operatin g

twenty-two steam barge s and employin g abou t one thousan d people . In 1868,

they collected an unprecedente d amoun t of amber: 185,000 pounds. By 1870,

Stantien and Becker bega n open-pit mining, and the famou s Palmnicken min e

wa s opene d in 1875. In its first year, Palmnicken generate d 450,000 pound s of

amber, and its yield improved steadily until 1895, whe n the unbelievable amoun t

of 1.2 million pound s wa s extracted. On e Felix Dah n described Palmnicken,

wher e ther e worke d "hundred s of men , women , and children, in all imaginabl e

costumes, in the oddest of attires, shielding themselve s against the sharp,

whistling winds, digging vigorously and swinging their shovels to th e languid





strain of some sombr e melody. "

By 1930, ambe r extraction at Palmnicken wa s largely mechanized . Hug e

conveyers dumpe d buckets of blau Erde into ope n freight cars. Th e trains the n

carried the earth over to grates,

wher e it

wa s spilled to


spray hous e below

and blasted with high-pressure hoses; small pieces floated ou t of a slurry, larger

pieces wer e collected by hand .

Ou t of the hundred s of thousand s of pound s

extracted yearly, nearly 90 percen t wa s of poo r quality and suitable only for

chemica l processing; the remainde r wa s used for carvings and jewelr y or

contained fossilized inclusions. Tha t 90 percent wa s dry distilled in hug e iron

retorts, which yielded 60 to 65 percen t ambe r colophony (a high-grade varnish),

15 to 20 percent ambe r oil (used in medicines, casting, and the highest grad e

varnishes), and 2 percent distilled acids (used for medicines and dyes). Palmnicken

is still the most prolific ambe r min e

in the world.



About 90 percent of Baltic ambe r has a high concentration of succinic




(up to



from whic h the name succinite is derived.

Agricola (Georg Bauer) is said to have bee n the first to isolate succinic acid from

Baltic amber, aroun d 1546. Some Baltic amber, a yellow, friable ambe r called

Miirber Bernstein, lacks succinic acid an d ha s alternatively bee n name d Gedanite.

Other, rare r Baltic ambers, also lacking succinic acid, are stantienite and beckerite,

bot h of whic h are opaque , dull brown , or black. Glessite, the rarest form,


yellow and softer tha n succinite. Even within succinite ther e exist various classes,

distinguished by the size of numerou s bubble s in the amber. Foamy ambe r is

caused by a froth of larger bubbles, while bone ambe r is marke d by microscopi c

bubbles. Bone ambe r is whit e to yellowish opaque , like ivory, an d wa s eagerly

sough t for particula r portion s of carvings, such as inlays. Pieces having bubbl e

sizes betwee n thos e of foamy and bon e ambe r are called flom, or goose-grease ,

and bastard amber. Bastard ambe r is clouded by milky swirls and is the most

commo n o f the opaqu e varieties. Wh y some ambers are opaqu e and others

are no t is no t well understood . Th e fact tha t some Baltic ambe r lacks succinic

acid suggests tha t several different kinds of trees ma y have given rise to the

Baltic amber.

Botanical Origins

Exactly wha t tree


or trees gave





ambe r from the

Baltic regio n has long bee n a matte r of controversy and

confusion (possibly resolved just recently),

and study of botanical inclusions

in Baltic ambe r ha s a distinguished history. In 1836, the Germa n botanist

H. R. Goeppert described the Baltic ambe r tree as Pittites succinifer. Th e tree

was identified from microscopi c features of woo d fragments preserved in the

amber, which, Goeppert believed, also showe d similarities to pines. In fact,

another botanist later assigned th e Baltic ambe r tree to the genu s of tru e pines,

Pinits. Othe r evidence in favor of a pine or pinelike origin are the man y cone s

and needles in the amber. Baltic amber, however, lacks abietic acid, whic h

chemically distinguishes pine resin. Th e alternative hypothesis states tha t Baltic

A cone in Baltic amber. Length of cone .6". Private collection ambe r wa s forme

A cone in Baltic amber. Length of

cone .6". Private collection

ambe r wa s forme d from an araucarian or a tree like one , bu t araucarian resin

doe s no t have the succinic acid tha t is so distinctive of most Baltic amber.


addition, ther e are few araucarian fossils in the Norther n Hemisphere , and

Opposite: A small flower (diameter

.6") in a much larger piece of Baltic

amber. Private collection

apparently non e in Baltic amber.

A recent discovery tha t sheds considerable light on the origins of Baltic

ambe r is tha t some living trees

in the pine family,

which belon g to the gener a

Keteleeria and Pseudolarix,

do indeed produc e

succinic acid.

Th e

latter is


particular interest since

resin in 40-million-year-old Pseudolarix cone s from Axel

Heibur g Island in the Canadia n Arctic also contains succinic acid. Pseudolarix

today is found in Asia, and on e species, Pseudolarix amabilis,

is very narrowl y

restricted to some mountain s in eastern China (the othe r tw o species have

highe r concentrations of succinic acid). Th e fact tha t 40-million-year-old trees

tha t produce d succinic acid existed on (wha t are now) the northernmost islands





strongly suggests tha t Pseudolarix could have bee n in Scandinavia




time , and thenc e in the Baltic region. Th e Pseudolarix hypothesis is also bolstered


th e

fact that man y

of the

othe r plant and insect species fossilized in the


ambe r are closely related to species no w living in Asia, Australia, and even Chile.




Given the mountain s of Baltic ambe r extracted from the Palmnicken

min e alone, on e can only imagin e the thousand s of pieces tha t

wer e found containing interesting inclusions. Th e ambe r collection of Albertus

Universitat in Konigsberg absorbed the ambe r collection of the Stantien and

Becker firm, which in 1914 totaled some 70,000 pieces. Harvard's Museu m of

Comparative Zoolog y has a super b collection of 16,000 fossiliferous pieces, man y

brough t over from Europ e in 1867 by Herman n Hagen , a brilliant entomologist

from Konigsberg wh o became a professor a t the Harvar d museum . Th e Konigs-

ber g collection wa s by far the largest in existence and, by all accounts, wa s

Amber in Nature • 55

A famous specimen: larva of the owl

"fly," Neadelphus protae, in Baltic

amber, in which all of the intricate

processes and hairs are preserved.

Like the related ant lions, these

larvae impale their prey with their

huge mandibles and then suck them

dry. Hagen Collection, Museum of

Comparative Zoology, Harvard


A famous specimen: larva of the owl "fly," Neadelphus protae, in Baltic amber, in which all






destroyed by fire in Worl d Wa r II. Actually, only portions of it wer e lost, becaus e

during the wa r the collection wa s divided amon g various localities for safekeeping,

o n e place being the Institut fur Palaontologi e in Gottingen, wher e part of the

collection still resides.

Germa n scientists developed the paleontologica l study of ambe r fossils for

several reasons. One , of course , wa s the proximity of the richest ambe r deposits

in the world. Th e othe r wa s their perfection of optics, specifically in microscopes.

Since 1800, hundred s of specialized scientific papers have described myria d

organisms in the Baltic amber. Some of the nineteenth-centur y monographs,

particularly the botanical ones, are illustrated in lavish detail wit h copperplat e

etchings, han d painted wit h watercolors. For G. C. Berendt's lovely 1830

monograp h on the flora of the Baltic amber, he ha d studied mor e tha n 2,000

pieces with plant inclusions. Hug o Conwentz's botanical monograph s of 1886 and

1890 are the most complete , wit h a stunnin g delicacy tha t moder n scientific

illustration could never hop e to accomplish. Continuin g the prestigious Germa n

tradition is Diete r Schlee at the Museu m fur Naturkunde , Stuttgart, hom e to

the most comprehensive collection of ambers around the world and a hug e collec-

tion of fossiliferous pieces, from the Baltic, Dominica n Republic, and Lebanon .

Sven Larsson's 1978 book , The Paleobiology of Baltic Amber, summarize s

nearly 150 years of scientific wor k on Baltic amber. Dating method s are far to o

imprecise to confirm if all Baltic ambe r is 40 million years old, bu t we kno w tha t

succinite can be as youn g as 20 million years old, which is the age of the hug e

deposits of ambe r from coal mine s in Bitterfeld, German y (these mine s are

no longe r active, bu t they did yield extensive collections of fossils, no w at the

Humbold t Museu m in Berlin). If the fossilized organisms did exist all at the

same time , the grea t diversity of tiny animals, plants, and fungi allows a very

thoroug h reconstructio n of the ancient ambe r forest. Such a reconstruction

is presented later for the Dominica n ambe r forest, whic h contains tropical

species no t unlike one s living on Hispaniola today (see page 101). Perhaps a

result of bein g 10 millions years older, whe n sea levels and changin g climates

had mor e effect, the Baltic ambe r biota wa s distinctively subtropical.

Th e gamu t of diversity in th e Baltic ambe r includes bacteria, slime mold s

(actually, they are colonial protozoa), tru e molds, parasitic fungi, highe r fungi

(like mushrooms), lichens, mosses, ferns, cycads, conifer cones, flowers of

nearly a hundre d species of plants, and hundred s of species of arthropods.

Stellate plant hairs (trichomes) are mor e commo n in the Baltic tha n in most

other ambers. Since oa k flowers occur in the amber, these trichome s are often

attributed to oaks, even thoug h trichome s are widespread throughou t the

flowering plants. No t surprisingly, man y of the insects are forms whos e living

relatives are found on dead and decaying tree trunk s and unde r bark. Swarms

of insects infested injured and rotting wood , perhap s the result of "succinosis,"

Conwentz's hypothetical disease tha t led to the demis e of the forest and the

formation of such prodigious amounts of resin. Besides stellate plant hairs,

Piles of crude amber being bagged at the Bitterfeld amber mine. Now closed, it had yielded

Piles of crude amber being bagged at

the Bitterfeld amber mine. Now closed,

it had yielded an exceptional amount

of amber.





Opposite: A plate from Hugo

Conwentz's 1890 monograph on

Baltic amber flora, Monographic

der baltischen Bernsteinbaume,

showing flower inclusions and leaf

impressions in the amber

anothe r distinctive feature of Baltic ambe r inclusions is the preservation. Insects

in Baltic amber, muc h mor e tha n in any othe r amber, have a milky covering

(Schimmel) over at least a part of the body. This milkiness is an emulsio n of

microscopi c bubble s caused by decomposition .

Collectors of Baltic ambe r are no t immun e from the obsession for vertebrat e

remains typical of most ambe r deposits. Unfortunately, ther e is also a venerabl e

history of forgeries in Europ e (see page s 140-41). Th e only whole , possibly

authenti c vertebrat e specime n in Baltic ambe r wa s a Nucras succinea, a small

lizard related to one s living no w in Africa, which apparently wa s lost wit h some

of the Konigsberg collection. Small tufts of mamma l hair and a few small single

feathers occur in Baltic amber, an d recently the tails of a lizard and a roden t

wer e found.

O n e of the most importan t insights into evolution tha t the study of Baltic

ambe r fossils has mad e concern s extinctions. For man y of the no w extinct plants

and insects in this amber, the closest living relatives are found in tropical or

subtropical Asia, Australia, or souther n Sout h America. For example , the small

parasitic plant Trigonobalanus today grows in Southeast Asia. Th e plant Trianthera

in Baltic ambe r is closely related to Eusideroxylon from Borne o an d Sumatra .

Archaeid spiders an d man y chironomi d midge s have their closest living relatives

in Ne w Zealand, Australia, or Chile. Wh y some group s of organisms wer e onc e

widespread and became extinct throughou t most of their rang e is uncertain.

A plate from H. R. Goeppert and

G.C. Berendt's 1845 monograph

on the flora of the Baltic amber,

Die Bernstein und die in ihm

befindlichen Pflanzenreste der

Vorwelt, depicting details of cones

and flowers, with the actual size

of the specimen by comparison





Supplanting the popularity of Baltic amber, at least in Nort h America , is the

ambe r from Chiapas, Mexico, and the Dominica n Republic. This ma y be due to

its proximity to the United States an d the availability of rare fossiliferous pieces,

b u t a majo r factor certainly is the exquisite preservation of inclusions, probably

the best of any amber. In the Dominica n Republic and Mexico, ambe r wa s well

know n to the native peoples. Christophe r Columbu s apparently received gifts

An unusually large piece of Mexican

amber, with one surface unpolished

and showing deep natural grooves.

Length 6.5". American Museum of

Natural History (Entomology)

of ambe r from the Taino peopl e whe n he landed on the norther n shor e of the

Dominica n Republic. In Mexico, ambe r wa s carved and used for incense by

the Maya, and some indigenous use of it still exists. Mexican ambe r has bee n

know n to Nort h America n and Europea n scientists since abou t 1890, wherea s

Dominica n ambe r wa s no t scientifically know n until about the mid-1940s.

62 • Amber in Nature

Clear yellow Mexican amber containing

dark bubbles and two small amblypygids,

a kind of arachnid. Length of amber 3.1".

American Museum of Natural History






Mexican and Dominica n ambers wer e bot h forme d from extinct species

of Hymenaea trees,

althoug h the

only on e yet described (definitively named )

is Hymenaea protera from the

Dominica n


Well before


wa s

named ,

scientists ha d discovered tha t this Dominica n ambe r tree is mor e closely related



on e African membe r of the

living species in this genu s



a sourc e of African copal) tha n


any Ne w World species.

Th e

Mexican ambe r

tree is apparently most closely related to the living H. courbaril, whic h is wide-

spread in souther n Mexico and the Caribbean, all the way dow n throug h South

America .

Identifications of the sourc e of the ambers are based on chemistry

a n d on the whol e

and partial

flowers and leaves in the amber.

Dominica n and

Mexican deposits are approximately contemporaneous, having bee n forme d

from aroun d the mid-Oligocene (about 30 million years ago) to th e early

Hymenaea courbaril leaves, flowers,

and seedpod. This is a living relative

of the extinct trees that gave rise to

Mexican and Dominican ambers.

Opposite: Hymenaea courbaril tree,

Saint John, U.S. Virgin Islands





Mexican and Dominica n ambers wer e bot h forme d from extinct species of Hymenaea
Detail of the small crab in the amber piece at right. Width of crab .2" Right:
Detail of the small crab in the amber
piece at right.
Width of crab .2"
Right: Section of amber from Chiapas,
Mexico, with a small crab, possibly
of the family Grapsidae,
exceptionally rare fossil, this is the
only known crab preserved in amber.
Private collection
Opposite, above: Large centipede in
Mexican amber. Length of amber 2 ".
American Museum of Natural History
Opposite, below: Male ant in a piece
of Dominican amber. Length of amber
The ant has a metallic shine and
is deep red because the body cavity is
pyritized. Some amber pieces that
have inclusions exposed to the surface
are affected this way by dissolved

minerals in the surrounding matrix.

American Museum of Natural History






Amber in Nature • 67
Amber in Nature • 67





Miocen e (about 20 million years ago). Very little basis exists for some claims that

Dominica n ambe r is 40 million years old.

Fourtee n species of Hymenaea are found today throughou t the Caribbean,

tropical South America , and, curiously, the wester n half of Centra l America

(separated from the eastern half by a central spine of mountains). In the

Dominica n Republic, Hymenaea trees are called algorrobo, and the resin is peruvia

(in Cost a Rica, Hymenaea is guapinol, or stinking toe). Leaves an d the large,

har d seedpods are studded wit h tiny pockets of resin, which chemically defend

the tree from caterpillars, weevils, and othe r herbivorous insects. Hymenaea

produce s prodigiou s quantities of resin from its trunk s and branches, sometime s

accumulatin g in large "stalactites." Very large pieces of Dominica n ambe r are

sometime s found: on e piece of approximately 17.5 pounds is in a sho p in Santo










clockwise from





open pit









The famous La













"Rubio" Martinez,

a famous





the foreground.


Open pits











acclaimed for





they yield.




working in


deep pit








Domingo ; another, of 15.8 pounds, is in Hamburg , Germany.

Both Mexican and Dominica n ambe r occur in similar settings an d are mine d

in similar ways by locals. Generally the ambe r is found because a landslide

along a steep slope in the mountain s exposes veins of black lignite. If the lignite

contains amber, it is gradually extracted by digging along the vein wit h picks an d

shovels. In a rich seam, several pound s of ambe r can be extracted in a day. Whe n

the veins extend dee p into the mountain , the diggings evolve into tunnels, some -

time s 100 to 200 feet long. This is especially tru e in Mexico; in the Dominica n

Republic, tunnels are du g only in the La Toca grou p of mine s (most othe r

diggings are broad, dee p pits). Wate r accumulate s in the tunnels an d must be

baled or pumpe d out. Even so, the tunnels sometime s collapse, a s ha s happene d

in the Dominica n La Toca mines.

After digging, the mine r takes the materia l into bright sunlight, washe s it,

and chips a small piece off on e en d to expose a clear window. If th e windo w

reveals any special, large organism inside, it is reserved for special bargaining

with ambe r dealers. In the Dominica n Republic, the dealers centered in Santiago

and Santo Doming o have corps of polishers, some of them children, wh o

remov e the rind from the crud e ambe r and polish it, generally following the

natura l contours. Thousand s of pieces are processed each wee k in the larger

ambe r shops, all sorted according to size and whethe r they have rar e inclusions

or not. Small, barre n pieces are used for necklaces, bracelets, an d earrings. In

Mexico, the grinding and polishing is mor e of a cottage industry, bu t even here

the choicest, rarest fossil pieces mak e their way to an internationa l marke t of

amateu r collectors an d museums.

Scientific study of the organisms has revealed, particularly for Dominican

amber, an exceedingly rich extinct biota, ou r knowledge of whic h is based on

collections of Dominica n fossils in the Museum fiir Naturkund e in Stuttgart,

the Smithsonian Institution, and the American Museum of Natura l History.

Th e paleontolog y departmen t at the University of California, Berkeley, has an

intensively studied collection of Mexican ambe r fossils. Ther e also exist several

superb private collections of Dominica n and Mexican ambe r fossils.


Amber in


Overleaf, left: Chunk of Dominican amber in its siltstone matrix. Length of amber 2.1". American Museum

Overleaf, left: Chunk of Dominican amber in its siltstone

matrix. Length of amber

2.1". American Museum of

Natural History (Earth and Planetary Sciences)

Overleaf, right: An unusual piece of Dominican amber

with the opaque, milky swirls more commonly seen

in Baltic amber. Length 4.6". American Museum of

Natural History (Entomology)

Amber in Nature • 69
Unlike the Baltic amber, Mexican and Dominica n ambe r rarely occurs in Amber mining in
Unlike the Baltic amber, Mexican and Dominica n ambe r rarely occurs in
Amber mining in
the Dominican
milky, opaqu e forms; it is usually very transparent. Insect and othe r inclusions

in Dominica n and Mexican ambe r also rarely are obscured by a milky substance ,

althoug h organisms in Mexican ambe r are frequently distorted by compression.

Opposite: Two pieces of Dominican

amber with unusual inclusions. The

long piece contains wood (length 2.3 ");

the smaller one has opaque milky

clouds. American Museum of Natural

History (Entomology)

Ambe r from Mexico is concentrate d aroun d the town of Simojovel, in the

souther n state of Chiapas. Dominica n ambe r come s from one of abou t thirtee n

group s of mine s approximately 50 miles northwest of Santiago, arising from the

La Toca Formatio n at least 1,500 feet high in the Cordilleira Septentional, an d

t w o othe r mine s considerably nort h of this group, not far from Puert o Plata.

Some mine s are renowne d for their distinctive colors, although color is hardly

consistent. Some ambe r from the Los Cacaos mine is the bluest of probably any

known . Ambe r from Palo Alto is famed for its clear yellow hu e and tha t from

the La Toca mine s for its dee p red color, although both colors occur in bot h

mines. Occasionally, miners find pieces of smoky, greenish amber. Such colors

are found in Mexican ambe r as well.

A light, almost clear fossil resin (copal) in the Dominica n Republic, often sold

a s amber, come s from the eastern town s of Bayaguana, Cotui, Comatillo, an d

Sierra de Agua. As in all copals, it become s heavily crazed in several years. On e

scientific study estimated this copal to be 15 million years old, bu t carbon dating

ha s revealed tha t at least some of it is only several hundre d years old.





This page: A piece of Dominican

amber lighted completely from behind

(above), and with long-wave ultraviolet

and some reflected white light (below).

Under ultraviolet light, the fluorescing

amber appears very dense, and visible

are many more flow lines than are

seen in transmitted light. The piece

contains some termites. Length of

amber 2.9". American Museum of

Natural History (Entomology)

Opposite, above: A leaflike pattern

of pyrite, or "fool's gold," lying on a

fractured surface in Dominican amber.

Length of amber 1.3". Private collection

Opposite, below: A piece of deep red

Dominican amber, part of it highly

polished, the remainder with a

natural surface of deep fissures.

Length 3.8". Private collection





This page: A piece of Dominican amber lighted completely from behind (above), and with long-wave ultraviolet
Opposite and left (running in columns): Reconstruction sketches showing how the piece below was formed Fern
Opposite and left (running in columns): Reconstruction sketches showing how the piece below was formed Fern

Opposite and left (running in columns):

Reconstruction sketches showing how the

piece below was formed

Fern in 25-W-30 million-year-old Dominican

amber. The fern is curled up, and "stalactites"

of amber are hanging from it. Length of

amber 2.2 ". Private collection

Amber in Nature • 77





An ant beneat h a popla r found,

An ambe r tear has covered round ;



tha t wa s in life despised,

in deat h preserved, is highly prized.

In the bright tear Phaethon's sister shed

a be e

is seen,


in its nectar,


Its man y toils have

earne d a guerdo n high,


such a

tom b


be e

migh t wish to die.

—Martial, Epigrams (Books vi.xv; iv.xxxii)

J n the exceptional circumstance , a fossil is found tha t reveals somethin g of

its life history an d habits. Th e fabulous ichthyosaurs from Wiirttemberg ,

Germany , are preserved in a slate so fine tha t on e can see tha t they gave live

birth to their youn g and, sometimes, can discern wha t they ate. Fish from the

Santana limestone of Brazil (about 110 million years old) are preserved in

remarkabl e three-dimensiona l concretions, with the muscl e bundle s entirely

replaced by minerals wit h their shape still intact. Occasionally on e is found

replete wit h the little bodie s of the shrimp tha t it dined upon . For organisms

as delicate as insects, "freezing" a prehistoric momen t requires exceptional

preservation, whic h ambe r provides. Ambers have preserved the various

developmenta l stages of some insects, prey and plant hosts, parasites,

commensals, as well as exhibitions of defensive and social behavior. Most

of the example s will be take n from the 25-to-30-million-year-old Dominica n

ambe r becaus e the diversity of its inclusions allows the most complet e

reconstruction of the ancient forest.

Dispersal of a species is necessary if opposite sexes are to mee t and

reproduce . In situations wher e the ability to get aroun d is limited, as wit h

an arthropo d tha t lacks wings, novel solutions are required. On e of the most

interesting is phoresy,

or hitching a ride on anothe r animal. Phoresy is commo n

Fossils in this section are preserved

in 25-to-30-million-year-old amber

from the Dominican Republic, unless

otherwise noted.

in mites tha t disperse from, say, mushroo m to mushroo m on a fly Phoreti c

mites on various flies are preserved in amber, bu t probably the best example s

are some sweat bee s (halictids) wit h dozen s of tiny mite s still latched on for

one last, fateful ride.

Opposite: A damselfly, slender relative

to dragonflies. Length of amber 1.8".

Private collection





Opposite, above: Membracid treehopper. The part of its body just behind

the head is prolonged into a spine with three thorns. Length of amber

1.4". American Museum of Natural History (Entomology)

Opposite, below: Leaf beetle (family Chrysomelidae) that exuded a

stream of noxious bubbles in an attempt to defend itself from the resin.

American Museum

of Natural

History (Entomology)

Above: Stick insect, orphasmid. Length of amber 3.4". Private collection





T h e most curious exampl e of phoresy in ambe r involves pseudoscorpions,

tiny renditions of scorpions withou t the stinger. Man y pseudoscorpion s live

unde r bark or amon g cracks in bark, wher e

they feed on

mite s and othe r tiny

arthropods. Sometime s on e is found wit h a claw clamped ont o a braconid

was p or tipulid flies,

bu t


Dominica n ambe r they are attached most often to

wood-borin g platypodid (ambrosia ) beetles. We know today tha t some pseud o

scorpions live in the galleries mad e by wood-borin g beetles. Whe n the

pseudoscorpion s disperse, they latch ont o the first beetle tha t come s along,

Right: Wood-boring platypodid beetles,

with the sawdust plugs that they

pushed out of their tunnels in wood.

The beetles were probably attacking a

Dominican amber tree. American

Museum of Natural History


Below: Wood-boring platypodid beetle,

with a pseudoscorpion latched onto

it with one of its claws. American

Museum of Natural History


Opposite: Pseudoscorpion. Length

of amber A". American Museum of

Natural History (Entomology)





whic h ma y take

the m to anothe r tree like the original.

T h e most curious exampl e of phoresy in ambe r involves pseudoscorpions, tiny renditions
T h e most curious exampl e of phoresy in ambe r involves pseudoscorpions, tiny renditions
Swarm of termites. The winged termites were caught on the bottom of a large flow of

Swarm of termites. The winged

termites were caught on the bottom

of a large flow of resin, which was

engulfed by an even larger flow. Length

of amber 3 ". American Museum of

Natural History (Entomology)

Insects have a plethor a of strategies for reproduction; some are even captured

in amber. Amon g the short-lived (usually aquatic) insects, such as man y gnats,

mosquitoes, midges, an d mayflies, the male s aggregat e into sometime s hug e

Opposite: Swarm of tiny long-legged


(family Dolichopodidae).


of amber 2.2". Private collection

swarms. Thousands, or millions, of male s fly about in on e spot, into whic h

females fly to become mated , thu s insuring that the sexes rendezvou s durin g

their brief life span. Copulatio n ma y take hours, as in the case of a bibionid

midge , Plecia nearctica, the "love bug. " Male swarms, or portion s of them, in

Dominica n ambe r are most commonl y of scatopsid midges, bu t example s of

empidid flies, dolichopodid flies, mycetophilid midges, tipulid flies, and termite s

also appear. Termit e swarms caugh t in ambe r usually have a jumbl e of wings

amon g the bodies, since termite s easily shed their wings after landing. Occa-

sionally a matin g pair of midge s is caught in the resin.

On e piece of Baltic ambe r

even contains a pair of matin g spiders. Th e oldest matin g pair,

of any kind


animal, are sciarid midge s in 125-million-year-old Lebanes e amber.





From top to bottom: Mating crane

flies. Length of amber 1.2 ". Private


Detail of coupled pair above

Midge trailing a string of her eggs.

American Museum of Natural History






Many flies reflexively lay eggs whe n they die, whic h explains wh y some

female flies in ambe r have eggs just behin d them. This is seen in Dominica n

ambe r most commonl y in the little drosophilid fruit flies bu t also wit h some

midges, such as the chironomi d trailing a string of he r eggs. Occasionally a

decaying insect or othe r unidentified decaying tissue has clumps of fly eggs on

it, which never quite hatche d before resin engulfed them. On e exquisite aspect

of insect eggs in ambe r is tha t the intricate geometri c sculpturing of the eggshell

is still apparent.


on e


a youn g larva wa s caught emergin g from its egg.

In several othe r cases, loosely wove n silken cocoons of spiders still have th e

embryo s or newly hatche d spiderlings within. Various kinds of larvae occu r


amber, bu t the choice specimen s are of a larva in some interesting situation,

such as with silken cases. Bagworm, or psychid moth , caterpillars carry aroun d



ba g



to whic h

ha s

bee n

sewn man y bits

of leaves

and twigs of the

plant they wer e feeding upon . It camouflage s them extremely well, bu t it did no t

Many flies reflexively lay eggs whe n they die, whic h explains wh y some female

Wood gnat emerging from its pupal

case. American Museum of Natural

History (Entomology)

Overleaf, left: Metalmark butterfly

(family Riodinidae). Length of amber

2 ". Private collection

Overleaf, right: Large inchworm

moth (family Geometridae). Length

of amber 2.2". American Museum of

Natural History (Entomology)





prevent a few from bein g engulfed in resin millions of years ago. Tineid mot h

caterpillars do a similar thing on a smaller scale, an d generally they use their

o w n frass (insect feces) for concealment. Th e one s preserved in ambe r wer e

probably grazin g upo n the wood y polypor e (bracket) fungi that grew on the

Dominica n ambe r tree .

Social insects have colonies of hundred s to hundred s of thousand s of

individuals, divided into castes for defense, egg-laying, an d working . Sometime s

the workers are subdivided into nurse s and major and mino r workers. On e just

need s to see the hug e termit e mound s on an African savanna, or an army ant

swar m in a South America n jungle , to appreciate ho w social insects are amon g

Opposite: Paper wasp. Length of amber

.8". American Museum of Natural

History (Entomology)

the most ecologically importan t group s of animals, and generally the most

conspicuou s insects. In Dominica n ambe r the social insects are ants (the most

commo n of all the inclusions), termites, stingless bees, and, rarely, pape r wasps.

Various castes are preserved, including the bizarr e workers of Zacryptocerus,

whic h plu g the entranc e of the colony wit h their flat heads. To enter, an ant

Ants caught while attempting to carry

their larval brood to safety. Museum




must tap properly wit h its antennae . Anothe r weird caste is the nasut e soldier

of some termites. Nasute s have heads shaped like a bottle, from whic h they

spray a sticky substanc e at intruders. Of course , portions of colonies are

90 • Amber in Nature
Amber in
Portion of an Azteca ant colony. This piece contains about two hundred ants. Length of amber

Portion of an Azteca ant colony. This

piece contains about two hundred

ants. Length of amber 1.5". American

Museum of Natural History


occasionally engulfed by resin, sometime s with hundreds of ants (one piece in

the Stuttgart museu m contains abou t 2,000 ants). Very rarely a piece is found

in whic h the workers wer e caught trying to carry the broo d to safety. Th e only

portions of the actual nest are several cells from the pape r wasps. However,

the midden s and remains of termit e an d ant nests with their original owners

aboun d in amber.

Th e midden s of the ant colonies provide excellent clues as to wha t the colony

wa s feeding upon , such as assorted bod y parts of othe r insects. Every social

insect colony today has "guests, " some wanted , some not. Some are parasites;

others—th e inquilines—merely live off the scraps in the nest. In Dominica n

amber, ther e are nicoletiid silverfish, certain tiny staphylinid, limulodid, and





paussine beetles, all superbly adapte d for living undetecte d amon g (or at least tolerated
paussine beetles, all superbly adapte d for living undetecte d amon g
(or at least tolerated by) ants in their colony.
An d ther e
are the
parasites of the ants, too, such as the bizarre twisted-winged parasites,
and various scuttleflies of the Phorida e family. Th e social insect
colony, the n as now, is a cosmo s of ecological relationships.
Man y predator y beetles, lacewings, robbe r flies, sucking bugs,
spiders, and even mantise s and damselflies have bee n trappe d in
amber, bu t a predato r caught in the
wit h its
prey is
rare .
Some -
time s a piece contains spiderwebs wit h the victim (generally a tiny,
frail gnat) snagged on a thread.
Neve r ha s
a piece bee n found wit h
the spider still resident. On e piece in the American Museu m of
Natura l History has a jumpin g (salticid) spider grappling wit h its
millipede prey. A famou s piece of Baltic ambe r has a Ptilocerus
assassin (reduviid) bu g in it,
alon g wit h the husks
of the
ant prey
tha t the
bu g sucked dry.
Living relatives of this bu g today lure ants
from their nests wit h the scent from a special gland, then they
Top: A mantis look-alike: mantis-
pid lacewing in Dominican amber.
Length of specimen .9". Private
Above: A rare adult praying
mantis in Dominican amber.
Private collection
Left: A praying mantis, attacked
by ants, carried them to its
resinous tomb. Length of amber
1.2". Private collection

Opposite: Dominican amber

with two amblypygids (whip

scorpions) and various small

insects in it. Width of amber

3 ". Private collection

Detail of amblypygid in the

piece opposite (and on the

jacket front), showing insect

prey still caught in its spiny,

basketlike jaws

Jumping spider embracing its

millipede prey. American

Museum of Natural History






Above: Spider. Length of amber 1.6". Private collection Parasitic fly, Stylogaster, with a rapier egg-laying appendage.

Above: Spider. Length of amber 1.6".

Private collection

Parasitic fly, Stylogaster, with a

rapier egg-laying appendage. Living

species of this genus today parasitize

cockroaches. Private collection





Above: Spider. Length of amber 1.6". Private collection Parasitic fly, Stylogaster, with a rapier egg-laying appendage.

impal e the ant with their shar p beaks. A similar bu g is found in Dominica n

amber, bu t it probably fed on the stingless bees, Proplebeia dominicana, tha t wer e

very commo n in the Dominica n ambe r forest. Th e foreleg of each bu g has a

large droplet, which it must have used as a sticky snag for the bee .

Th e parasitic insects are, likewise, very commo n in Dominica n amber,

especially the various minut e wasps. (Entomologists refer to insects tha t live on

and eventually kill another, host insect as a parasitoid, to distinguish the m from

tru e parasites, which do no t kill their hosts.) Few direct evidences of parasites

and parasitoids exist in amber. Mites are the most commo n type of parasite

found on insects. Wate r mite s are found on the adults of some aquati c insects,

such as caddis flies and chironomi d midges. Some tiny moth s harbo r erythraeid

impal e the ant with their shar p beaks. A similar bu g is found in

mites, and small drosophilid flies occasionally have large macrochelid mite s

(proportiona l in size to a huma n wit h a watermelo n attached). Th e most

gruesome are the nematod e wor m parasites; in on e piece of Dominica n ambe r

from the Stuttgart museum , a hug e mermithi d nematod e can be seen emergin g

from its midge host; the nematod e must have taken up most of the host's body.

Above: Tiny twisted-winged parasite

(order Strepsipteran) of ants. Only .5

mm long, it is remarkably similar to a

present-day species. American Museum

of Natural History (Entomology)

Several pieces of Dominica n ambe r have leafhopper nymph s wit h a large black

sac attached nea r the abdomen . This is a dryinid wasp larva (adult dryinid wasps

also are in the amber). A persona l favorite is a Dominica n ambe r specime n

containing tangled strands of spider webbing. Dangling along the strands is a

r ow of seven tiny cocoons; th e was p larvae that spun thes e cocoon s parasitized

the spider on whos e we b the cocoon s are no w preserved. Adult wasps emerge d

from all bu t thre e of the cocoons.

String of tiny cocoons suspended from

a spider web. The cocoons are from wasp

larvae tHat parasitized the spider that

spun the web. American Museum of

Natural History (Entomology)

Amber in Nature • 97





the Ancient


Amber Forest

Pretty! in ambe r to observe the forms

Of hairs,

or straws, or dirt, or grubs, or worms!

T h e things,

we know,

are neithe r rich no r rare,

But wonde r ho w the

devil they go t there .

— Alexander Pope,

Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot

Preservation in ambe r is as biased as any othe r kind of fossilization, particularly

whe n it come s to size. Large insects generally have the strength to free themselves

from sticky sap, so it is very rare to find large beetles, dragonflies, grasshoppers,

a n d the like in amber. In fact, the longest insects discovered in ambe r are damsel-

Small menagerie of 217 insects, spiders,

and plants. The "spray" of tiny

insects is collembola, or springtaib.

The flowers and stems are from an

acacia. Length of amber 1.5". Private


flies (abou t two-and-a-half inches long) tha t could not free themselve s from

the resin becaus e they are so delicate and thin. Likewise for plants: only thos e

flowers and leaves small enoug h to be blown abou t in the wind and encapsulated



stream of resin are the one s tha t are preserved.

This lilliputian bias in

fossilization is mad e up for, though , by the lifelike detail preserved in the ambe r

Ancient Communities: Reconstructing the Ancient Dominican Amber Forest Pretty! in ambe r to observe the forms





and the shee r diversity of tiny organisms. It is well documente d that, at least for

insects, the numbe r of species increases tenfold for a tenfold decrease in bod y

size. And the mor e species tha t are preserved, the mor e complet e is a recon-

struction of the ambe r forest. A fascinating insight is revealed by discovery of

ambe r pieces wit h a menageri e preserved inside, formin g a tru e snapshot of a

tiny part of the community . Some of thes e pieces display striking diversity. On e

in the Stuttgart museum , for example , ha s in it some tw o hundre d individual

arthropod s belongin g to twenty-two families.

Th e most direct signs of the Dominica n ambe r forest are the assortmen t of

flowers, stems, leaves, seeds, an d even tendrils preserved in the amber. Living on

the trunks of the Dominica n ambe r tree, as happens now, wer e mosses, Liverworts,

and the occasional mushroom . Living amon g the ambe r trees wer e mimosoi d

trees like acacias. Flowers of the families Bombacacea e (balsa and baoba b family),

Euphorbiaceae (euphorbs, such as cassava and poinsettia), Hippocrataceae, Legu-

minosa e (pea family), Meliaceae (mahogan y family), Myristicaceae (nutme g

family), and Thymeliacea e have all bee n identified in the amber.

Inference of the ancient ambe r forest can be mad e based on the myria d

insects preserved in amber. Adult an d immatur e insects occupy various niches in

freshwater (and, occasionally, in brackish an d salt water), soil, and decaying


Map of the piece opposite

wood ; as parasites of othe r insects an d of vertebrates; and feeding on the entire





array of fungi, flowers, and leaves. Some insects are dedicated to a particular A menagerie piece,

array of fungi, flowers, and leaves. Some insects are dedicated to a particular

A menagerie piece, only 1.1" in

diameter, containing sixty-two whole

or partial insects representing five

orders and fourteen families. Some of

the inclusions are covered with mold.

American Museum of Natural History


kin d of plant; for example , monarc h butterfly caterpillars concentrat e on

milkweeds, others are grea t generalists. If an insect in ambe r has living relatives

feeding exclusively on a particula r genu s of tree, we can be fairly certain that the

extinct species fed on an extinct species of the tree.

For example , we are fairly

certain tha t fig trees lived in the ambe r forest, even thoug h we have no direct

evidence . Thes e trees are renowned , amon g othe r things, for the "flying

buttresses " tha t help support their gargantua n proportions, in contrast wit h

Opposite: Reconstruction of the

ancient Dominican amber forest. The

numerous life-forms preserved in this

amber allow a detailed re-creation of

what the forest probably looked like,

including the inhabitants of the forest

floor, living under bark and in the

amber trees and on the plants growing

near the amber trees. Everything in the

reconstruction is either supported by

actual fossils in Dominican amber or

inferred on the basis of host plants

for plant-feeding forms of insects.

the minuscul e insects tha t pollinate them. Living in the figs (which are actually

an unusua l kind of inflorescence called a synconium) are agaonid wasps abou t

a millimete r long. Each species of fig harbors a specific species of wasp, an d the

wasps are found nowher e else. Dominica n ambe r has fossilized several of

thes e fig wasps.

Althoug h we have no direct fossil record from the Caribbean, we also kno w

tha t palms wer e in the Dominica n forest, based on the thausmastocori d palm

bugs and certain kinds of weevils in the amber. Ultimately, a comprehensive study

of the array of plant bugs, plant hoppers, leafhoppers, whiteflies, scale insects,

leaf beetles, and moth s in Dominica n ambe r will reveal wha t this 25-million-

year-old forest wa s like. As of now, we kno w that ope n areas occurre d in at least

some parts of the forest, no t only becaus e of a few grass spikelets found in

Dominica n amber, bu t also since there are lygaeid bugs in it as well. Bromeliads





Opposite: Hymenaea leaf, from the amber tree. Length of amber 2.1". American Museum of Natural History

Opposite: Hymenaea leaf, from

the amber tree. Length of amber

2.1". American Museum of

Natural History (Entomology)

Above: Hymenaea flower, from

the tree that formed the amber.

Length of amber 1.6". Private


Below: Winged seed. Private






Petal from a Hymenaea


in Mexican

amber. Length of amber

1.3 ". American Museum

of Natural History

Small flower with a

thorny stem, its pollen

spreading into the once-

liquid resin. Length of

inclusion .9". Private


Petal from a Hymenaea flower, in Mexican amber. Length of amber 1.3 ". American Museum of
Petal from a Hymenaea flower, in Mexican amber. Length of amber 1.3 ". American Museum of





wer e nestled amon g the branche s of the Dominica n ambe r trees themselves.

A species of butterfly in Dominica n ambe r (a metalmark ) an d its caterpillars

probably fed upo n the bromeliads. Living in the little pond s tha t accumulat e in

the cente r of the bromeliads, no doubt, wer e mosquitoes, predacious diving

beetles, and perhaps even the small frogs found preserved in the amber.

Th e woo d of the Dominica n ambe r tree wa s infested wit h various insects.

Th e most commo n sign of this is frass, or the tiny pellets of insect feces. Frass is

in all ambe r tha t contains insects, and, at least for Dominica n amber, it is no t at

all uncommo n to find dozen s of frass pellets, which probably rained dow n into

the resin from an openin g in an adjacent insect nest, in a single piece. Most frass

in Dominica n ambe r appears to have come from termites. We can even surmis e

that the Dominica n ambe r forest landscape wa s dotted with large carto n nests

of Nasutiterm.es termites. Colonie s of thes e termite s today build intricate oblon g

nests—attached to tree trunk s or hangin g from branches—tha t have a compo -

sition like brittle papier-mache . As do most termites, the nasut e worke r termite s

construc t thin galleries, in this case meanderin g all over the tree to th e ground ,

throug h which they an d the soldiers marc h unexposed.

Colonies and nests tha t wer e less conspicuous, bu t whic h probably ha d a

muc h greate r ecological impac t tha n thos e of any othe r social insects, wer e

those of the giant Mastotermes termites. Th e extinct species from Dominica n

amber, M. electrodominicus, ha d winge d reproductives nearly an inch-and-a-half

long. A similar extinct species, M. electromexicus, exists in Mexican amber. Th e

only living species in this genu s is in Australia. Th e Australian species constructs

large subterranea n colonies, generally a t the base of the trees whos e woo d

they are consuming , and they are voracious.

Anothe r enem y of the Dominica n ambe r tree wa s

a plethor a of wood -

boring and bar k beetles, also called ambrosi a beetles. Numerou s species in the

families Platypodida e an d Scolytidae occur in Dominica n amber. Th e beetles

today excavate tunnels an d galleries throughou t heartwood , or into the surface

of the heartwoo d just unde r the bark (bark beetles). Sawdust produce d from the

tunne l excavations is pushe d ou t throug h the tunne l entranc e and compresse d

into cigar-shaped plugs. Such plugs are preserved in ambe r along wit h the

beetles. Th e beetles attack a living or injured tree bu t do no t actually kill it by

their boring. A fungus specific to each species of beetl e is inoculated into the

wood , wher e it grows to carpe t the galleries. Th e beetles feed on this fungus

(their "ambrosia"), and it is th e fungus tha t kills the tree. We kno w tha t some

trees today secrete excessive amounts of resin to trap beetles invading their

wood; the beetles in ambe r are evidence that the strategy works, at least somewhat.

Similarly, it has bee n though t tha t the Dominica n ambe r wa s produce d in such

large amounts to offset massive outbreak s of bar k an d wood-borin g beetles.

Judging from the incredible variety of little brow n beetles, fungus gnats,

certain kinds of rarely collected acalyptrate flies, and various othe r kinds of

termites, all associated today wit h rotting woo d and the fungi tha t decompos e

Stem and leaflets of an acacia plant.

Length of amber 2.2". American

Museum of Natural History


Opposite, above: Liverwort. Length

of amber 2.3". Private collection


below: Small mushroom.

Length of amber 1.5". Private






Stem and leaflets of an acacia plant. Length of amber 2.2". American Museum of Natural History