A spider's erection, and other cool things trapped in amber (pictures)
In many respects, amber is nature's historian. As a tree resin, it starts as a sticky flowing substance that often traps flora and fauna in its path. Then, as volatile compounds in the resin evaporate and other chemical changes take place, it becomes fossilized, preserving its contents for millions of years.
Not only is amber prized by jewelry makers, it's also valued by scientists, who can peer into it to look back at the past in a very real way.
Perhaps one of the most striking examples of amber's ability to freeze time is this specimen of a harvestman spider, also known as a daddy long legs. This particular critter was about to have sex, as evidenced by its erect penis, which is normally hidden inside the body in its less excited state.
The spider is estimated to be about 99 million years old, which certainly adds new meaning to lasting forever. The spider's discovery was reported in The Science of Nature journal in January.
"This is the first record of a male copulatory organ of this nature preserved in amber and is of special importance due to the age of the deposit," reads the paper on the find.
Photo by: Jason Dunlop, Paul Selden & Gonzalo Giribet
Pretty and poisonous
Seeds, leaves and plants are as likely to be preserved in amber as insects and other small animals, but usually only fragments remain. Here, a plant was preserved entirely intact in the resin.
The flower turned out to be a new species from the genus Strychnos, the same group that includes plants that can produce strychnine, a deadly poison often found in modern pesticides. The flowers are believed to be at least 15 million years old.
In another stunning example of amber's ability to preserve moments past, this chunk of the material shows a mite attached to the head of an ant.
While it might look like an attack, the researchers who discovered the scene believe the mite was forming a parasitic relationship with the ant. Both critters are between 44 million and 49 million years old.
Photo by: Jason Dunlop/Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin
While the mite in the prior image was just looking to hitch a ride on the ant, the 100-million-year-old spider seen here was definitely going in for the attack on the unfortunate wasp that found its way into the spider's ancient web.
"This was a male wasp that suddenly found itself trapped in a spider web," George Poinar, an Oregon State professor emeritus of zoology who wrote about the discovery in 2012, said in a statement. "This was the wasp's worst nightmare, and it never ended. The wasp was watching the spider just as it was about to be attacked, when tree resin flowed over and captured both of them."
A spider wasn't the only one who had his sex life preserved for all time by a glob of amber. These flowers were caught in the act as well.
When this now-extinct species of plant from about 100 million years ago goes under the microscope, scientists are able to see the exact moment when pollen tubes reached out from pollen grains and penetrated the flower's stigma. That's the part of a plant's female reproductive system that gets fertilized.
Had the pollen-to-stigma hook-up continued, it would have led to the formation of a newborn seed.
"In Cretaceous flowers we've never before seen a fossil that shows the pollen tube actually entering the stigma," zoologist George Poinar said in a statement. "This is the beauty of amber fossils. They are preserved so rapidly after entering the resin that structures such as pollen grains and tubes can be detected with a microscope."
Photo by: Oregon State University
The salamander in this piece of amber had a rough time of it about 20 million years ago. First, it lost its leg, then it landed in a glob of tree resin that became its tomb.
One lizard's bad day turned out to be a good find for George Poinar though. When revealing this discovery in 2015, the Oregon State professor emeritus of zoology said a salamander had never been found in a chunk of amber before. By examining the amber more closely, Poinar discovered that the salamander had never been seen before, in or out of fossilized tree resin, although it was now extinct. What's more, the discovery was surprising because today, salamanders aren't found anywhere in the Caribbean, and this particular bit of amber was found in the Dominican Republic.
"The discovery of this fossil shows there once were salamanders in the Caribbean, but it's still a mystery why they all went extinct," Poinar said in a statement. "They may have been killed by some climatic event, or were vulnerable to some type of predator."
Photo by: George Poinar, Jr./Oregon State University
The flea was also discovered by George Poinar from a piece of amber found in the Dominican Republic that's believed to be about 20 million years old. When the researcher examined the bacteria attached to the insect, he said it looked very similar to modern plague bacteria.
"Aside from physical characteristics of the fossil bacteria that are similar to plague bacteria, their location in the rectum of the flea is known to occur in modern plague bacteria," Poinar said. "And in this fossil, the presence of similar bacteria in a dried droplet on the proboscis of the flea is consistent with the method of transmission of plague bacteria by modern fleas."
If it turns out that the bacteria is related to the plague, which still affects people today but can be cured with antibiotics, it would mean the strain of the disease goes much further back than ever thought.
While some specimens trapped in amber get all mushed up from the process, this beetle was found in remarkable condition -- especially considering it's 99 million years old.
"For a beetle taxonomist and for the entomological community as a whole, this is an exciting discovery," Michael Caterino said in a statement. Caterino is the director of the Clemson University Arthropod Collection who specializes in studying this type of amber-encased beetle, which belongs to the family Histeridae. Caterino has been able to study the bug through a series of high-resolution images sent to him from the Stuttgart State Museum of Natural History in Germany, where it's housed.
"This is an extraordinary 99-million-year-old fossil in Burmese amber," he said. "We can see all the details of the external sculpturing of the wing covers and the head. We can see the mouth parts, which enable us to predict that this was a predator much like its modern relatives. And it has a lot of tantalizing characteristics that we hypothesized early members of this family had. But we no longer have to guess. Now we can confirm."
Photo by: Stuttgart State Museum of Natural History
This ancient roach discovered in even more Burmese amber is called Manipulator modificaputis, but if it were a character in a Roadrunner cartoon, it might just as easily be called Roachus terrifyingus.
"The tiny monster, measuring just under 1 centimeter (about .4 inch), hosts a weird amalgam of unique features making it look like a chimera of a crane fly, a praying mantis and a cockroach," says a report about the critter by the BBC.
The bug was one of many ancient roaches found in amber in Myanmar and is indeed a distant cousin to today's praying mantis. It has eyes on top of its head, to help it spot predators. It also has a triangular head that sticks out on a stalk from its body, and it was believed to have hunted at night.
"This little monster was a solitary hunter, able to run very fast, with a body unlike the vast majority of cockroaches living today. It posed high above ground, frequently taking flight when necessary, and seizing its prey with strong short spines developed on its extremely long feet," Peter Vršanský told the BBC.
Vršanský is from the Geological Institute of Bratislava and the Slovak Academy of Sciences and reported on the discovery of the roach in the journal Geologica Carpathica.
Photo by: Dr. P. Vršanský
This piece of amber shows another ancient conflict, this time between two ants.
More interesting to the researchers than the activity, though, is that the fossil -- along with other pieces of amber found in Myanmar -- showed a breakdown according to castes, or functionalities. Because this particular amber was about 100 million years old, it served as proof that a social hierarchy among insects dates back to at least the Cretaceous period, which was between 65.5 to 145.5 million years ago.
Previously, the only solid proof of the social order of insects had dated back to between 20 million to 17 million years ago.
"Ergot has played roles as a medicine, a toxin and a hallucinogen; been implicated in everything from disease epidemics to the Salem witch trials; and more recently provided the hallucinogenic drug LSD," said a report about the discovery from Oregon State University, where project researchers are based.
Because of the date of the amber, researchers say it's possible the dinosaurs roaming the Earth at the time could have eaten this grass and its attendant trip-inducing fungus.
"There's no doubt in my mind that it would have been eaten by sauropod dinosaurs, although we can't know what exact effect it had on them," researcher George Poinar said in the report.