PALEONTOLOGY OF AMBER

In this Blog I’ll describe how biomaterials including animal and plant fossils are included and preserved in amber formed from tree resin, which by its stickiness can entrap objects which contact its surface as shown in Figure . With further addition of the resin the object is sealed within the resin and out of the surrounding biotic environment. With the passing of geological time amber forms from the resin and encloses the organism as described in the legend of Figure 1-[Ref1,2].

Figure 1. Taphonomy (Process of the formation) of amber with preserved organisms[Ref16].

In the environment external to the tree in which the amber forms, oxidation and temperature extremes and biotic factors such as bacteria and scavengers accelerate decomposition of an organism; instead the environment within the tree resin capturing the organism provides protection against the biotic environment, allowing the preservation processes to proceed to fossilization. Following entrapment of the organism within the resin, the continuing loss of volatile oils called olio-resins from the resin, which continues through evaporation, coupled with polymerization reactions of terpenoids to form a large network of molecules and other organic compounds result in the formation of amber with time. Under conditions that are not extreme, the amber is impervious to the outside environment and shields the fossilized material during its preservation. Studies of factors affecting preservation have shown that the type of tree resin, hence its chemistry and possible chemical attack on the material, the degree of dehydration, and activity of gut microorganisms are some major factors affecting the preservation of soft tissues of organisms[Ref16,17].

Gallery of Some Fossils Preserved in Amber

Some of the most extraordinary discovered fossils range from insects to plants and animals preserved in amber. —“[Ref3]. To illustrate, a Gallery of some unusual, and representative preserved fossils which I found very interesting are shown beautifully in the following figures.

Figure 2. Lyme Disease spirochete-like bacteria (Borrelia burgdorferi)are present in a tick preserved in15-20 million-year-old Dominican amber[Ref4]. The bacteria are present as the approximately 1-mm sized brown-black spheres located between the juncture of the legs and the body of the tick.
Figure 3. The flea Atopopsyllus cionus, a genus entirely new to science, is preserved in 20 million-year-old Dominican amber[Ref5]. The brown-colored rod-like and spherical bacteria seen within the flea are similar to the bubonic plague bacteria (Yersinia pestis). This fossil specimen may show an early connection between insects and pathogenic microorganisms.
Figure 4. A millipede preserved in 99 million-year-old Burmese amber differed in appearance from those of the order existing today, Callipodia, and was called Burmanopetallum inexpectatum[Ref6].
Figure 5. A baby salamander of the extinct species Palaeoplethodon hispaniolae preserved in 20 million year-old Dominican amber[Ref7]. The fossil revealed that salamanders once lived on an island in the Caribbean Sea where they are now absent. The lack of a forelimb reveals attack by predator before entrapment in the parent resin with following containment in amber.
Figure 6. Tufted tube-likeand protofeathers of a dinosaur preserved in 78-79 million-year-old Canadia amber{Ref8,9,10]
Figure 7. A 47.5 millimeter-long baby snake preserved in 99 million-year-old Cretaceous amber found in Myanmar[Ref11]. Its taxonomy is connected to snakes from Argentina, India, and India.
Figure 8. Mammalian hair preserved in amber which 100 million years ago
In the Cretaceous in Era and found at Charentes, France[Ref12,13]. With the scale bar in Panel “a” being 100 μm length the diameter of the hair is seen vary between 32 and 48 μm and the hair to be ~ 2.4 mm in length. In panel “b” the fossil hair is seen to comprise be hollow surrounded with a layer of brown carbonaceous material replacing the cuticle and with irregular shaped grey carbonaceous debris. In Panels “d” and “e” the wavy scale pattern and markings on the cuticle are shown clearly.
Figure 9. Leaves of the carnivorous plant Roridula gorgonias preserved in Eocene Baltic Amber between35 and 47 million years-go and found near Kaliningrad, R.ussia[Ref14]. The venom containing glands project laterally from the surface region of the leaf away from the axis of the plant. Scale bars: A and B; 1mm, C 100μm.
Figure 10. Flower of the plant species Strychnos electri preserved between 
45 and 15 million years ago in Dominican amber[Ref15]. Being of the Genus Strychnos; the plant may have been poisonous.

Biomaterials Found Preserved in Amber

Preserved biomaterials range from biochemicals to fossilized cells, tissues, and entire organisms. Representative examples of these preserved biomaterials are presented below in TABLES I, II, III, and IV.

None of the structural biomolecules of animal and plant life forms are preserved intact in amber. Instead chemical reactions acting on the chitin within the cuticle of arthropods and within the cell walls of fungi and plants, and on the proteins within feathers, cuticle, and soft tissues of animals, respectively form polysaccharides and amino acids as summarized and referenced in TABLE –. Of pigmented biomolecules red hemeporphyrins and melanin are preserved as seen in the table while carotenoids are not.

Recovery of geologically ancient DNA would be of immense value to biology.

However, according to the paper by Hebsgaard, et al[Ref18], the authenticity of the reports of the presence of DNA being found preserved in amber, References 12,16,17,19,23,24 in the paper, is questionable. As stated in the paper by Hebsgaard et al in Box 2 of their paper, “It is concerning that all claims published to date on DNA surviving over geological time spans have not followed the most fundamental of these authentication criteria.” 

Biochemicals which have been found in amber are summarized in TABLE I. Examples of preserved bio-materials ranging from bio-chemicals are described with illustrated references in TABLE I, and from tissues to organisms are described in the text and summarized with illustrated references in TABLE II, and in TABLE & III. 

TABLE I . SOME EXAMPLES OF BIOMOLECULES FOUND PRESERVED IN AMBER

BIOMOLECULE BIOLOGICAL SOURCE GEOLOGICAL AGE  (Million-years-ago)REFERENCE
N-acetylglucosamine Fungus Chitin Cretaceous,  138-6619, 20
β-1,3 and β- 1,4-linked polysaccharidesFungus ChitinCretaceous, 138-66 Mya19
Amino Acids



Feather Keratin



Insect Protein
Cretaceous extending into Eocene, 99-44
Tertiary – Creataceous 130-40 Mya

21


22
MelaninFeatherEocene, 66-23 Mya23

Cells and both soft and hard tissues are found preserved in amber as shown in TABLE II.

TABLE II. EXAMPLES OF ANIMAL AND PLANT CELLS AND TISSUES PRESERVED IN AMBER

TISSUEHOSTGEOLOGICAL AGEREFERENCEFIGURE NUMBER
Flight Muscle, fibers and mitochondriaFlyMiocene 23-5 Mya24Figure 2C
Neural,  axons & glial cells BeetleOligocene 34-23 Mya25Plate1,  Figures 5 & 6
Eye, Lens, pigment cells, crystalline coneFlyEocene, 45 Mya26Figure 1
Cuticle scalesCockroach, Beetle, Grass-hopperCretaceous, ~130 Mya27Figure 8
*Cuticle & soft tissues in sectionsFly
28,29
Blood, Red Blood CellsMonkey, TickOligocene,   30-15 Mya30Three figures
FeathersDinosaurCretaceous, ~ 105 Mya31Three figures
BoneLizardMiocene, ~20 Mya32Figures 1, S1 & S2
Cypress Plant—-Eocene, ~45 Mya33Figures 1 & 2
Fern—-Cretaceous. ~98 Mya34Figures 1 & 2
Liverwort—-Cretacwous ~100Mya35Figures 1-10
*Images obtained by micro CT scanning.

Some animals from the Cretaceous Era into the Miocene Era found preserved in amber are presented in TABLE III.

TABLE III. SOME ANIMALS FOUND PRESERVED IN AMBER

PHYLUM/AnimalGEOLOGICAL AGE (MILLION YEARS AGO)REFERENCEFIGURE NUMBER IN REFERENCE/ NUMBERS OF FIGURES
MOLLUSCS


SnailCretaceous ~9936Figures 1-7
AmmoniteCretaceous ~9937Five figures
ARTHROPODS


FlyCretaceous 135-6538One figure
BeetleCretaceous ~10039One figure
BeeCretaceous ~10040Ten figures
MillipedeCretaceous ~9941Two figures
ScorpionMiocene 23-1542Three figures
VERTEBRATES


SalamanderOligocene 30-2043One figure
LizardCretaceous ~9944One figure
SnakeCretaceous ~9945One figure
DinosaurCretaceous ~9946,47k-one figure., l-one figure
BirdCretaceous ~9948One figure
MAMMAL


Shrew-likeCretaceous49None

Some plants living from the Cretaceous Era into the Eocene Era found preserved in amber are presented in TAVLE IV.

TABLE IV . SOME PLANTS FOUND PRESERVED IN AMBER

PHYLUM/Plant or Plant OrganGEOLOGICAL AGE {MILLION YEARS AGO (Mya)}REFERENCEFIGURE NUMBER OR THEIR NUMBER PRESENT




MossesTertiary 66-2.6501-15
LiverwortsEocene, ~48-34511-3
GYMNOSPERMS


PineEocene, ~48-3452One
ConiferCretaceous  ~100-9453,54
ANGIOSPERMS


Flower similar to Christmas BushCretaceous ~10055Three
Asterid flowerOligocene into Miocene, ~ 2556,57One

References:

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https://www.britannica.com/science/geologic-time

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