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Stories in the Amber


Jewel of the Earth homepage

Flower petal
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This is a petal from the flower of the now-extinct species of algarrobo tree whose resin was the source of all Dominican amber. Without this single species of tree, the fabulously rich community of ancient life captured in Dominican amber—which includes the largest fossil gathering of land-dwelling invertebrates in a tropical environment—would not have been preserved. This tan petal probably fell shortly after the flower opened.



Pollen Grains
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Amber can record the most fleeting moments of forest life. Here, pollen grains that were in the process of spilling out of a falling algarrobo stamen spread like a handful of tossed salt onto the surface of the sticky resin. Millions of years later, the grains remain intact, with their original protoplasm still inside.



Spiked ribbon seed
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Resembling a floral sea urchin, this "spiked ribbon" seed has long golden ribbons extending out from a coiled hub. The ribbons were likely used to aid the seed's dispersal, but precisely how is unknown. The source plant of the seed, whose diameter is just over a half an inch from ribbon tip to ribbon tip, has not been identified.



Fig wasp
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This fig wasp proves that plants of the fig genus existed in the amber forest, even though no direct evidence of fig trees or shrubs has turned up in Dominican amber. Each species of fig today has its own specific wasp pollinator; experts believe the same to have been true back then. Note also the tiny wormlike creatures caught in the midst of escaping from the wasp's body. Such nematodes today hitch a ride on fig wasps to the next fig, where they multiply.



Mushroom
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This extinct mushroom is the only known fossil tropical mushroom ever found. One of the smallest members of the so-called inky cap family, this specimen likely grew on the bark of the algarrobo tree with others of its kind. When the cinnamon-colored mushroom was overrun by a glob of resin, a tiny mite grazing on its cap was entombed forever in the very act of dining (see mite lower right).



Planthopper
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Planthoppers were common in the amber forest. Like their living relatives today, they used their needle-like beaks and sucking mouthparts to draw out juices from within leaves. This strikingly well-preserved planthopper was frozen in time so quickly that it didn't even have time to retract its wings.



Planthopper
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This "alligator-headed" planthopper indeed resembles its reptilian namesake. And perhaps not just in name: scientists have seen modern versions of such planthoppers resting with their snouts high in the air, not unlike the stance that some reptiles maintain. "Whether this behavior actually frightens potential predators is unknown," writes George Poinar, Jr. in his book The Amber Forest, "but why else would such a posture evolve?"



Butterfly
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Very few adult butterflies have been found in Dominican amber, and all those, including this one, belong to the metalmark family. Small and speckled, this orange-brown butterfly may have mistaken a patch of resin on an algarrobo tree for a tasty pool of sap. The sticky resin would have instantly immobilized its wings, which possessed nowhere near the strength needed to lift away.



Moth fly
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It was not a good day for this moth fly, which had the bad luck to be caught twice, first in a spider web and then in resin. These delicate strands of spider silk are so well preserved that experts have been able to identify their spinner: a member of the spider family Araneidae.



Spiderlings
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These recently hatched spiderlings might have been on the verge of "ballooning" when they were trapped. Ballooning is a technique young spiders use to travel long distances quickly. Spiderlings climb to an exposed location and begin generating silk threads. When the threads reach a certain length, the wind lifts both them and the spiderlings aloft before dropping them to the ground again some distance away. Experts have collected some spiders thousands of feet in the air, showing how successful this tactic can be.



Army ant
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This army ant appears to have been out on a hunting mission when it was entrapped. Judging from the wasp pupa beside it, the worker had raided a wasp nest and was in the process of carrying its prize back to the nest when it had the misfortune of stepping or falling into a blob of resin.



Ant bug
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Ant bugs like this one lie in wait on tree bark near foraging ants. When hungry, they rear up and expose their undersides, which release a secretion attractive to ants. As the ants start feeding on the substance, they become lethargic from a narcotic in the secretion. That's when the ant bug strikes, savagely driving its beak into the weakened ant's body and sucking out its life juices. The ant bug's hairs protect it from any death-throe bites or scrabbles by its victim. Today, ant bugs are extinct in the Western Hemisphere.



Pseudoscorpion
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Other ant predators found on the algarrobo tree millions of years ago were pseudoscorpions. When it succumbed to the resin, this pseudoscorpion was in the midst of attacking an ant. Victory for the assailant was not a foregone conclusion, however; ants sometimes win such battles and destroy their attackers.



Beetle
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Parasitic beetles are uncommon today, but their natural history tells us how beetles like this one with its bizarre, antler-like lobes thrived in the amber forest. Though social wasps are one of its prey, such beetles do not have to encounter a wasp in order to parasitize it. Instead, the beetle lays its eggs on or near flowers. When its larvae hatch, they wait for a wasp to alight on the flower to imbibe nectar. The larvae then grab hold of the wasp and hitch a ride back to its nest, where they transform into grubs and dine on wasp larvae. Later the grubs pupate in the soil and then go on to continue the cycle.



Lizard
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Lizards in amber are extremely rare—so rare that a single intact specimen can bring hundreds of thousands of dollars on the collectors' market. This gecko may have been eyeing a tasty insect feeding on the leaf seen here when it attacked the bug and unintentionally brought down the leaf and itself into a mass of resin. The victim might still remain inside the gecko's throat.



Feather
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No entire birds have ever been found in amber, but parts of them have, including this feather. While a variety of feathers are known from amber, this is the only one that experts have identified. It belonged to a small bird in the woodpecker family known as a piculet. A relative of this bird called the Antillean piculet still lives in the Dominican Republic today.



Tuft of hair
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As with birds, no intact mammals have turned up in amber, but traces of them have. Experts were able to guess what creature left behind this tuft of hair both by examining microscopic features in the strands and by identifying two parasites—a fur mite and a fur beetle—found in the hairs. These clues led them to conclude that this tuft belonged to a rodent, possibly an extinct relative of the hutia. Hutias are small, secretive creatures still living in the Caribbean area today, millions of years after the owner of this fur perhaps brushed up against an algarrobo, entombing a swatch of its hair for eternity.



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Jewel of the Earth
Bitten by the Bug

Bitten by the Bug
What is so captivating about an insect in amber? Hear from one aficionado.

Amber Time Machine

Amber Time Machine
Trace a bee's journey down through the ages within a piece of fossil resin.

Stories in the Amber

Stories in the Amber
View striking photos of long-extinct plants and animals caught in mid-pose.

Amber Around the World

Amber Around the World
From the Arctic to the tropics, amber is cosmopolitan, as this clickable map shows.



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