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Inquiry: AN OCCASIONAL COLUMN

Bitten By the Bug

  • By Peter Tyson
  • Posted 02.14.06
  • NOVA

What is so captivating about an insect trapped in amber?

Pretty in amber to observe the forms
Of hairs, or straws, or dirt, or grubs, or worms!
The things, we know, are neither rich nor rare,
But wonder how the devil they got there.

—Alexander Pope

Recently I bought my 11-year-old daughter a coffee bean-sized piece of Dominican amber in a museum gift shop. The piece lay nestled on a tuft of cotton in a small plastic box with a magnifying glass built into the lid. The box was one of dozens in a basket, all selling for $12.95. I chose it because it appeared to have a tiny bug in one end. When I showed the amber to the guy behind the counter, he generously agreed that he thought he could see antennae.

Solid gold: This amber reliquary and its tiny fly enable one to effortlessly evoke whole worlds long vanished. Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy Peter Tyson

Back home I placed the amber under the stereomicroscope I'd given my daughter as a birthday present a month before—and that's when I was snared, as effectively as the bug had been snared in the resin.

For sure enough, the bug was there—a miniscule fly—and as it came into focus under the microscope an entire new world came instantly alive in my mind. Since that moment I have read four books on amber and have spent literally hours surfing the Web looking at fossil-bearing amber. Lately I've talked of little else, to the point where my daughter told me on a recent morning as I drove her to school, "Dad, I'm beginning to hate the word amber."

What's so fascinating about a bug in amber? Well, even after pondering that question for several weeks now, I keep coming up with new reasons why, as my exasperated daughter could tell you.

Older than old

First, its age is staggering. This piece of amber and its fly are roughly 20 million years old (plus or minus five million years or more). We're not talking the dodo, gone for a few centuries; we're talking a creature that lived half the temporal distance back to the dinosaurs. The mountain range on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola where this amber was found did not even exist back then. How long ago is 20 million years? I mean, how do you get your mind around such a figure? Try this: If you were to count to 20 million, and on average it took you two seconds to say each number, you wouldn't be finished for 463 days. A year and a quarter of round-the-clock counting—that gives you a sense of how deep back in time this animal lived.

If this fly wasn't so common, it would be priceless. For if it were one of only a few, what price could you put on having the perfectly preserved body of an animal that lived 20 million years ago? Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy Peter Tyson

And the bug might be even more ancient. Experts estimate the age of a chunk of amber by dating the stone matrix it was found in, but there's no telling how long the amber existed before it ended up in the rock. So 20 million years is a conservative estimate for my daughter's fly. This tiny insect has achieved a degree of immortality that puts the best-preserved Egyptian mummies to shame. It lived for only a few days or weeks, but in death it has lived forever.

The thing itself

And it's the actual creature. It has not turned to stone like most compression fossils (though it's likely just a dried-out husk of its former self). It has remained three-dimensionally intact, its body appearing exactly as it did when the fly landed on resin from the algarrobo tree and became permanently delayed. Its still-erect antennae look caught in mid-waver; its legs retain their rows of wee hairs; its diaphanous wings are perfect. I can practically hear its buzz.

It showcases its victim as a perfect specimen for scientific study—or for my kind: simple, goggle-eyed wonder.

I never will, though, because the species is extinct. (Experts believe that virtually all animals in amber are extinct at the species level at least.) This little fly no longer exists on Earth; it had its run and will never pupate again. That, too, seems remarkable—that I can cradle a long-extinct animal in my hand. Well, almost. Part of me would like to break open the amber—for amber is a glass that can shatter if dropped—and touch the actual organism, or what's left of it. It would probably disintegrate, but to hold the remnants of this 20- to 30-million-year-old extinct animal in my palm for even just a few seconds—it would be like holding a dinosaur.

An urge to crack open the amber and lay one's fingertips on the remains of this primordial creature is just one of many impulses this modest specimen has called forth. Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy Bruce Wahl

A real gem

But it's too well-preserved to tamper with. It would be like destroying a beautiful piece of art. Compression fossils often suffer significant abuse in the countless millennia it takes to become a fossil. Not the fly—the amber has entirely protected it. Using the microscope, I can "walk around" the fly as around a sculpture, seeing it from all angles. And it retains both its original color (which happens to be black) and the very posture it held as it died; it didn't even have time to retract its wings. The fly may even yet contain cells and DNA. That's an amazing thought, that the blueprint for this long-vanished creature, eons in the making, might still lie preserved in this gemlike piece of fossilized resin.

The amber itself is indeed gemlike. My daughter's piece is a warm yellow-orange, shaped like the semiprecious gemstone it is, and very clear. It showcases its victim as a perfect specimen for scientific study—or for my kind: simple, goggle-eyed wonder. We humans have long appreciated amber's allure. "The bee is enclosed, and shines preserved in amber, so that it seems enshrined in its own nectar," wrote Marcus Valerius Martialis, a first-century A.D. Latin poet, smitten like I am.

Humble bug

Another thing that strikes me is the fly's humility. Everything is humble when seen in death, yet how can you get more unassuming than a nondescript fly, barely visible to the naked eye? I took a digital photo of it through the microscope and sent it to George Poinar, one of the world's leading experts on fossil amber, hoping he'd identify it as something rare and wonderful. Nope: It's an insect common in Dominican amber called a scavenger fly (family Scatopsidae). As the root of its scientific name suggests, its larvae eat scat and rotting organic matter. Even its living cousins are little-known today, because they have no economic importance, Poinar says, and because they're about as far from "charismatic megavertebrates" like tigers or whales as you can get.

Many would consider a scavenger fly a homely thing compared to a tiger, yet seeing it up close in amber can lead one to muse on the fly's own intrinsic magnificence. Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy Bernard Landgraf

Yet to me the fly's humility makes it all the more compelling. Its beauty has nothing to do with conventional notions of beauty. It is just as much one of nature's creatures as a tiger or whale; just as much evolution went into it as into those poster species. If I were abducted by aliens for a year and the first thing I saw when I returned was this little fly, I imagine I'd tear up fast. We're both animals on this planet; it lived out its life just as I'm living out mine. Despite millions of years (and a few brain cells) separating us, we have that connection, and for some reason I feel it strongly when I behold the fly in the intimate setting established by the microscope.

Conjuring a world

And perhaps because it is so lifelike, the fly fires up my imagination as well as anything I've ever beheld, and far more than could a flattened fossil of a trilobite or fern. I can very easily visualize it flying through a tropical forest, perhaps pausing in a shaft of sunlight before alighting on a flower to sip nectar. (Adults of this group have more refined tastes than their larvae.)

What would I see if I could lift my eyes from its body and observe its primeval wood?

The fly begs me to wonder: What did its buzz sound like? Did it fly low to the ground or high in the canopy? Did it struggle for long in the resin or just resign itself to the inevitable? Was something after it when it got stuck? Or did it think the resin was sap (a nutrient-filled substance quite different from resin) and land on it? What did the fly see in its final moments? What would I see, in other words, if I could lift my eyes from its body encased in the original resin on the tree back then—not in the amber right now—and observe its primeval wood?

Suspended in time: a developing seedpod from the extinct algarrobo tree, whose resin preserved an entire ecosystem from millions of years ago Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy George Poinar, Jr.

Actually, I have a good idea of what I'd see, thanks to the work of George Poinar and his wife Roberta. Using clues from hundreds of pieces of Dominican amber containing ants in the midst of battle, parts of blossoming flowers, and other remnant flora and fauna, this husband-and-wife team has recreated the ecosystem the fly lived in. They've summarized their findings in a book called The Amber Forest—one of those books I devoured recently.

So when I look at the fly, I know it inhabited a humid forest not unlike tropical rainforest today, with a dense canopy of trees festooned with bromeliads and lianas and sheltering a rich understory of palms, figs, and shrubs. A phantasmagoria of organisms shared that forest with the fly (see Stories in the Amber.) Thanks to the Poinars, I can lift my eyes from its inert form and "see" its home. (The Poinars themselves can see much more in amber, from past climate and biogeography to symbiotic relationships and patterns of evolution and extinction.)

I can also imagine a world of purity that we long for but will never know. When this fly flew, there was no such thing as a human being, much less air pollution, engine noise, the ozone hole—our planet was still an Eden. Altogether, gazing at this fly does the same thing for me as gazing at the stars: It reminds me how insignificant I am in the grand scheme of things.

Obliged to a bug

In sum, that this little fly from millions of years ago, from an ecosystem that no longer exists, should have wound up in a small plastic box in the gift shop of my local natural history museum seems hardly less astonishing to me than that a slice of meteorite found on Earth (and now displayed in the same museum) originated on Mars. Especially something as fragile as a fly, which, without its amber time machine, would have disintegrated shortly after its demise, leaving no trace. I feel a debt of gratitude to the algarrobo tree that produced the resin. But I'm even more grateful to the fly.

This feature originally appeared on the site for the NOVA program Jewel of the Earth.

Peter Tyson is editor in chief of NOVA Online.

Further Reading

Grimaldi, David. 1996. Amber: Window to the Past. Harry N. Abrams.

Poinar, George, Jr. and Roberta Poinar. 1999. The Amber Forest: A Reconstruction of a Vanished World. Princeton University Press.

Ross, Andrew. 2010. Amber: The Natural Time Capsule. Firefly Books.

Related Links

  • Stories in the Amber

    View captivating photos of well-preserved insects and other organisms that got trapped in resin millions of years ago.

  • Amber Time Machine

    Trace a bee's journey from its brief life 15 to 20 million years ago down through the ages within fossil resin.

  • Amber Around the World

    From the Arctic to the tropics, from Mexico to Myanmar—see the richest sources of fossil amber on Earth.

  • Dinosaur Plague

    Insects caught in amber spark a controversial theory about what killed the dinosaurs.