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A Tour of the Ancient Life Still Trapped in Amber

Spiders battling wasps, flowers having sex, and other tableaus frozen in amber.

by Becky Ferreira
Jul 30 2014, 6:50pm

Oligocene era gecko trapped in amber. Image: PG Palmer.

Fifty years ago, an entomologist named Milton Sanderson discovered a massive trove of amber in the Dominican Republic. The ancient resin preserved a 20-million-year-old tropical ecosystem in stunning detail, complete with an amorous pair of flies that were caught in flagrante.

But despite the exciting initial findings, most of the 160-pound Sanderson amber collection was shelved and forgotten. It wasn't even brought out of storage when Jurassic Park made amber-fied insects a hot commodity, what with Mr. DNA's promise that the specimens could make "a baby dinosawwwr" [sic].

Finally, in 2010, paleontologist Sam Heads revisited the collection, and assembled a team of researchers to sift through the specimens. Today, they announced one of the project's coolest discoveries yet: A transitional grasshopper species, which the researchers named Electrotettix attenboroughi.

That's right: It's named after beloved naturalist David Attenborough, even though his brother Richard could easily have cinched the honor. David may be the sibling with more scientific clout, but Richard, the actor who played Jurassic Park founder John Hammond in the film, will forever be associated with amber-bound insects (especially atop canes).

The new grasshopper species is only the latest bizarre window into the past that amber preservation has opened up. From trapping full lizards to dinosaur feathers, amber has done a bang-up job of delivering time capsules of long-dead ecosystems. Here are some of the most captivating examples of species that got stuck in time when they got stuck in resin.

Image: Anders L. Damgaard

This eerily well-preserved spider is encased in Baltic amber, making it about 40-50 million years old. 


Image: Science/AAAS/McKellar

Genuine dinosaur feathers from the late Cretaceous, locked in Canadian amber. 


Image: George Poinar, Jr./University of Oregon

This scene is an easy frontrunner for the best fossilized showdown of all time. It's a window into a 100-million-year-old confrontation between a spider and a parasitic wasp caught in its web. The wasp must have been filled with dread as its attacker approached, but both animals ended up being trapped by resin, preserving the scene at the penultimate moment of attack. 

Image: George Poinar, Jr./University of Oregon

This is another 100 million-year-old fossil collected by Oregon State University. But instead of preserving a tableau of death, the amber captured the oldest specimen of sexual reproduction in flowers. 

Image: Anders L. Damgaard

This is another Baltic amber sample, making the nightmarish beetle preserved inside about 50 million-years old. 

Image: Brocken Inaglory

Last but not least, the most famous amber-fied insect of all: the mosquito. This particular sample is also Baltic, so the insect would have lived at least ten million years after the asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs. It looks like a little tube has been inserted into the amber, a la Jurassic Park, but it's actually just a hole for a necklace chain, because wearing prehistoric insects never goes out of style.