Prehistoric Creatures Preserved in 52 million year old Amber

The remains of hundreds of ancient arthropods have been discovered in a hoard of amber preserved in sediments discovered in a coalmine located in western India.  Researchers have been able to identify over 700 insects, mites and spiders, many of which are remarkably well preserved.  The fossils will help scientists to determine the extent to which Indian fauna and flora was influenced by the sub-continent’s gradual drift away from Africa towards Asia throughout the Mesozoic under the influence of plate tectonics.

Amber is a sticky, scented resin produced by certain types of trees since Jurassic times as protection against disease and to help seal wounds in the bark.  Occasionally, insects and other small creatures can become trapped in the resin and fossilised when it hardens into amber.

Everything Dinosaur has written extensively on fossil discoveries associated with organic remains preserved in amber, last year for example, we reported on the discovery of elements of a Jurassic spider’s web preserved in fossil amber.

To read more about this discovery: World’s Oldest Cobweb Preserved in Amber

The international team of researchers excavated something approaching 150 kilogrammes of the light, brown, coloured amber pieces from the coalmine located in Gujarat Province (India).  This is one of the largest finds of amber ever recorded from Asia.  The animals, pollen grains and other items trapped inside the amber are helping to provide scientists with an insight into the Indian eco-system at around the time that the Indian subcontinent collided with Asia to form the Himalayas.

A spokesperson for the research team, palaeontologist Jes Rust, based at Bonn University (Germany) stated that the remarkably well preserved fossils consisted of ancient bees, termites, gnats, flies and ants – in total more than 700 arthropods.

Examples of some of the Fossil Finds

Picture Credit: University of Bonn/David Grimaldi/American Museum of Natural History

Dr. Rust commented:

“They [the organisms] are so well preserved.  It is like having the complete dinosaur, not just the bones.  You can see all the surface details on their bodies and wings.  It’s fantastic.”

The amber itself is helping scientists to understand more about the flora in India during this part of the Palaeogene.  Tests on the fossilised resin indicate that it comes from a type of hardwood tree, that today make up nearly 80% of lowland forest canopies in south-east Asia.  The amber and the fossilised wood found in the same rock strata suggests that India must have been extensively forested at the time the amber was formed.

Reporting in the American based, scientific journal “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences”, the researchers describe the creatures preserved and theorise on the changes undertaken in Indian flora and fauna as the sub-continent drifted towards Asia under the influence of plate tectonics.

As the Indian plate moved towards the Asian plate,  a chain of islands may have formed.  These would have permitted the interchange and mixing of different floras and faunas as the islands acted as stepping stones for organisms between the two landmasses.

Dr. Rust stated:

“We think that, before the final collision between India and Asia, some sort of island arc was established.  Our findings suggest that the mixing of fauna was already so strong, that it was already happening for several million years.”

Once species from India had crossed into Asia, they could have spread further, eventually reaching Australia.  The team has so far recorded 100 different arthropod species.  They are hopeful that the amber will reveal more, some of which are likely to be close relatives of arthropods that live in Africa and Madagascar as the Indian sub-continent was once attached to these areas of land, for much of the Palaeozoic and into the Mesozoic forming the super-continent Gondwanaland.

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