Wooster’s Fossil of the Week: A fly in amber

May 25th, 2014

Fly in amber 012614A classic fossil this week. I wish I could say more about it. The specimen lost its label years ago, so I don’t know where it is from or its age (although a good guess is Neogene). I also can’t identify it with my skill set beyond “fly” (Order Diptera). Beautiful, though. The images were not easy to make. I used our photomicroscope and played with a combination of light from below (transmitted) and above (reflected). The polished amber fragment is about the size of a pea and the fly is near the middle of it.
Fly legs in amber 012614A closer view here of the legs. Each segment can be seen, along with their tiny spines. This seems to be a particularly long-legged fly.

Preservation in amber is a well known phenomenon. An insect like ours gets itself trapped in a drop of tree resin. The resin hardens into amber by losing much of its volatile content with heat over time. Polish the piece and you can peer inside and see the occasional treasures of three-dimensionally preserved organisms. Oddly enough, in most cases these fossils are hollow external molds with no internal tissues preserved. What we see is the outside of this cavity with pigments embedded in the amber. (This fly has gorgeous red eyes, for example.) Remember the Jurassic Park premise that dinosaur DNA had been recovered from blood in a mosquito’s belly preserved in Dominican amber? It just doesn’t happen. In fact, a recent study (Penney et al., 2013) showed that insect DNA doesn’t even survive in sub-fossil assemblages.

I know from experience that it is very easy to be fooled by fake amber. As a policy, I’ve learned to not buy it in an Estonian open market (just as an example!). After Jurassic Park appeared, the demand for amber shot up, especially if it had animals in it. Artificial amber, and amber made from shavings and fragments (“pressed amber”) flooded the market. Caveat emptor. I tested our piece and it passed.

For more images of insects in amber, please follow the link or just search “amber”.

References:

Penney, D. 2002. Paleoecology of Dominican amber preservation: spider (Araneae) inclusions demonstrate a bias for active, trunk-dwelling faunas. Paleobiology 28: 389-398.

Penney, D., Wadsworth, C., Fox, G., Kennedy, S.L., Preziosi, R.F. and Brown, T.A. 2013. Absence of ancient DNA in sub-fossil insect inclusions preserved in ‘Anthropocene’ Colombian copal. PloS one 8(9), e73150. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0073150

Poinar Jr, G.O. 1993. Insects in amber. Annual Review of Entomology 38: 145-159.

Trackback URI | Comments RSS

Leave a Reply