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Amber yields secrets from dinosaur era

April 5, 2010
Courtesy of the American
Museum of Natural History
and World Science staff

A 95-million-year-old am­ber de­pos­it is adding new­found fun­gus, in­sects, spi­ders, nem­a­tode worms, and bac­te­ria to the por­trait of an an­cient ec­o­sys­tem al­so shared by di­no­saurs, sci­en­tists say. 

Am­ber is hard­ened, fos­sil­ized tree sap whose glassy, jewel-like and yel­low­ish form of­ten con­tains small crea­tures trapped from the time of its or­i­gin and pre­served nearly per­fect­ly. 

A chalcid wasp in Ethio­pian am­ber, 0.6 mil­li­me­ters long. (Cour­tesy U. of Vien­na)


The new­found de­pos­it, dat­ed to the Cre­ta­ceous era that was the last ma­jor pe­ri­od of the di­no­saurs, is re­ported to be the first ma­jor dis­cov­ery of its kind from Af­ri­ca.

The find­ing may al­so pro­vide in­sights in­to the rise and di­ver­sifica­t­ion of flow­er­ing plants dur­ing the Cre­ta­ceous, re­search­ers say. A re­port by 20 sci­en­tists on the dis­cov­ery, in the cur­rent is­sue of the re­search jour­nal Pro­ceed­ings of the Na­tional Acad­e­my of Sci­ences, re­con­structs an an­cient trop­i­cal for­est un­cov­ered in pre­s­ent-day Ethi­o­pia.

"Un­til now, we had discov­ered vir­tu­ally no Cre­ta­ceous am­ber sites from the south­ern hemi­sphere's Gond­wanan su­per­con­ti­nent, a land mass that in­clud­ed mod­ern Af­ri­ca, said re­search group mem­ber Paul Nascim­bene of the Amer­i­can Mu­se­um of Nat­u­ral His­to­ry in New York. "Sig­nif­i­cant Cre­ta­ceous am­ber de­pos­its had been found pri­marily in North Amer­i­ca and Eura­sia."

"The first an­giosperms, or flow­er­ing plants, ap­peared and di­ver­si­fied in the Cre­ta­ceous," added Al­ex­an­der Schmidt of the Uni­vers­ity of Göt­tin­gen in Ger­ma­ny, an­oth­er of the in­ves­ti­ga­tors. "Their rise to dom­i­nance dras­tic­ally changed ter­res­tri­al ec­o­sys­tems, and the Ethi­o­pi­an am­ber de­pos­it sheds light on this time of change."

While some of the au­thors worked on the ge­o­log­i­cal set­ting and the fos­sils en­tombed with­in the am­ber, Nascim­bene, with Ken­neth An­der­son of South­ern Il­li­nois Uni­vers­ity, stud­ied the am­ber it­self. They found that the res­in that seeped from these Cre­ta­ceous Gond­wanan trees is si­m­i­lar chem­ic­ally to more re­cent am­bers from flow­er­ing plants in Mi­o­cene de­pos­its found in Mex­i­co and the Do­min­i­can Re­pub­lic. The am­ber's chem­ical de­signa­t­ion is Class Ic, and it is the only Ic fos­sil res­in discov­ered thus far from the Cre­ta­ceous. All oth­er doc­u­mented Cre­ta­ceous am­bers are from non-flow­er­ing plants, or gym­nosperms.

"The tree that pro­duced the sap is still un­known, but the am­ber's chem­is­try is sur­pris­ingly very much like that of a group of more re­cent New World an­giosperms [flow­er­ing plants] called Hy­menaea," says Nascim­bene. "This am­ber could be from an early an­gi­o­sperm or a previously-unknown co­ni­fer that is quite dis­tinct from the oth­er known Cre­ta­ceous am­ber-producing gym­nosperms."

Oth­er team mem­bers discov­ered 30 in­sects and spi­ders trapped in the am­ber from thir­teen fam­i­lies of or­gan­isms. These fos­sils rep­re­sent some of the ear­li­est Af­ri­can fos­sil records for a va­ri­e­ty of types, in­clud­ing wasps, bark­lice, moths, bee­tles, a prim­i­tive ant, a rare in­sect called a zorapte­ran, and a sheet-web weav­ing spi­der. Par­a­sit­ic fun­gi that lived on the trees were al­so found, as well as fil­a­ments of bac­te­ria and the re­mains of flow­er­ing plants and ferns.


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A 95-million-year-old amber deposit is adding newfound fungus, insects, spiders, nematode worms, and bacteria to the portrait of an ancient ecosystem also shared by dinosaurs, scientists say. Amber is hardened, fossilized tree sap whose glassy, jewel-like and yellowish form often contains small creatures trapped from the time of its origin and preserved nearly perfectly. The newfound deposit, dated to the Cretaceous era that was the last major period of the dinosaurs, is reported to be the first major discovery of its kind from Africa. The finding may also provide insights into the rise and diversification of flowering plants during the Cretaceous, researchers say. A report by 20 scientists on the discovery, in the current issue of the research journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reconstructs an ancient tropical forest uncovered in present-day Ethiopia. "Until now, we had discovered virtually no Cretaceous amber sites from the southern hemisphere's Gondwanan supercontinent," a land mass that included modern Africa, said research group member Paul Nascimbene of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. "Significant Cretaceous amber deposits had been found primarily in North America and Eurasia." "The first angiosperms, or flowering plants, appeared and diversified in the Cretaceous," added Alexander Schmidt of the University of Göttingen in Germany, another of the investigators. "Their rise to dominance drastically changed terrestrial ecosystems, and the Ethiopian amber deposit sheds light on this time of change." While some of the authors worked on the geological setting and the fossils entombed within the amber, Nascimbene, with Kenneth Anderson of Southern Illinois University, studied the amber itself. They found that the resin that seeped from these Cretaceous Gondwanan trees is similar chemically to more recent ambers from flowering plants in Miocene deposits found in Mexico and the Dominican Republic. The amber's chemical designation is Class Ic, and it is the only Ic fossil resin discovered thus far from the Cretaceous. All other documented Cretaceous ambers are from non-flowering plants, or gymnosperms. "The tree that produced the sap is still unknown, but the amber's chemistry is surprisingly very much like that of a group of more recent New World angiosperms [flowering plants] called Hymenaea," says Nascimbene. "This amber could be from an early angiosperm or a previously-unknown conifer that is quite distinct from the other known Cretaceous amber-producing gymnosperms." Other team members discovered 30 insects and spiders trapped in the amber from thirteen families of organisms. These fossils represent some of the earliest African fossil records for a variety of types, including wasps, barklice, moths, beetles, a primitive ant, a rare insect called a zorapteran, and a sheet-web weaving spider. Parasitic fungi that lived on the trees were also found, as well as filaments of bacteria and the remains of flowering plants and ferns.