Prehistoric Treasures: Amber Inclusions

Large Diphtera in  AmberLarge Diphtera in AmberAmong all hobbies and collectibles amber inclusions are definitely one of the most fascinating and educative. The thrill of keeping in your hand a frozen in time creature as old as 20 to 50 millions of years — is simply unimaginable. Amber is a true bridge in time — between primeval and modern times, and gives us prehistoric species exactly as they were caught millions of years ago.

Amongst prehistoric artifacts, amber inclusions are actually the only ancient relics not secluded in museums — out of sight and out of touch. It is still quite possible to become a proud owner of a genuine prehistoric creature enclosed in a piece of a golden gem. New deposits of amber are still being discovered and they can be quite affordable and yet precious.
Various residues - pollen?Various residues - pollen?Botanical inclusionsBotanical inclusionsFibrous inclusions near bead holeFibrous inclusions near bead hole
Insects, pieces of plants, or even mammals embedded in amber become invaluable resources of prehistoric information for scientists. These fossils represent extinct or ancient species, which allow paleontologists to analyze the evolution of plants and insects. Modern microscopy and analytical techniques allow them to precisely describe the details of the fossilized insect anatomy. Moreover, with the progress of genetics and biochemistry in the recent years, the idea of determining the DNA of the extinct species from amber specimens is becoming more and more plausible.

The concept of using the DNA from amber to revive dinosaurs has been widely popularized in the hit movie Jurassic Park. This catching idea was based on the speculation that blood of the dinosaurs could have been preserved for millions of years, if a female mosquito that just happened to feed on the dinosaur blood was immediately caught and fossilized in amber. Although theoretically possible, in practice such a coincidence is highly improbable. Firstly, both the amber and the dinosaurs should have existed in the same period of time, which immediately excludes the Dominican amber (quoted in the movie as the origin of the mosquito specimen). Dominican amber is relatively young and the dinosaurs were long gone before it was formed. The Dominican amber is dated as 40 million years old (from Oligocene to Miocene). On the other hand, the extinction date of the dinosaurs is estimated as 65.9 million years ago, i.e. at the end of the Cretaceous period and the beginning of the Tertiary period. The older, Baltic amber, which comes from the Eocene Epoch and is approximately 35 - 54 millions years old, is still too young to contain dinosaur samples. Although some amber deposits exists that are older than Eocene, they are really rare and unique. Therefore, it is more than improbable to be able to find an amber artifact that has the timing of formation corresponding to the existence of dinosaurs.

Even so, what are the odds to find an insect in it, and moreover — a fossilized mosquito with the dinosaur blood? Actually, the mosquitoes have existed for about 100 millions years, so it is theoretically possible, but we need to remember that it has to be a female mosquito, because only the females feed on blood. The male mosquitoes eat nectar, not blood. The blood meal is needed by the female only to nourish the eggs before laying them, and this process takes only several days. So, only within this short period of time, the female must have been caught in the amber in order to provide a fossilized blood sample. Not to mention, that it just had to bit the dinosaur, and no other animal...

For the paleontologists, however, any DNA material to be retrieved from the fossilized amber is fascinating. There is a continuous debate amongst the scientists ‐ is it really possible? Could it be achieved without the contamination with the present-time DNA residues in the lab environment? Could the retrieved DNA be complete enough to give us meaningful information? Although several scientific papers have been published attempting to retrieve the ancient DNA form various species, the subsequent studies did not confirm these findings and raised questions of the contamination of the samples. Amongst many possible ways of preservation (for example rock fossilization and ice preservation), amber inclusions still offer the best possible environment for good quality samples of tissue, specifically of the insects. The conditions of rapid entrapment without the air access, as well as the preservative and embalming properties of the amber resin give a highly protective environment for the organic inclusions.

While the scientists still work on the improvement of their laboratory techniques, thus mastering the methods of the DNA determination from minuscule samples, there seems to be a challenge for every enthusiast of amber inclusions – to beat the odds and to find fossil artifacts that would provide exciting genetic material for the science. Yes, it is highly improbable to find enclosed in amber a biting insect that had a blood meal just before being trapped in the amber resin. But it is not impossible! Look what we have found in our amber jewelry collection - there it is, with its abdomen swollen with the blood meal, exactly as in the modern day female mosquito.

All these pictures of amber inclusions were taken from the beads of the antique necklace (from the early 20th century) made of the Baltic amber and other pieces of jewelry in our collection. What you need is a good magnifying glass. See what your jewelry hides inside...