A spider's erection, and other cool things trapped in amber

The translucent substance literally offers a window for seeing back millions of years. Here, a few of the most amazing sights the fossilized resin has sealed in time.


Michael Franco

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Amanda Kooser

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1 of 20 Jason Dunlop, Paul Selden & Gonzalo Giribet

Lasting forever

In many ways, 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 2016.

"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.

First published Feb. 25, 2016. 
Update, Dec. 12, 2017: Adds images including a tick, feathered dinosaur, wings and a baby bird.
Update, June 14, 2018: Adds images of a tailed spider, a chameleon and a tick in a spider web.  

2 of 20 University of Kansas

Tick in a spider web

The University of Kansas describes this unfortunate tick's experience as a "primordial worst-day-ever." The 100-million-year-old specimen was found wrapped in spider silk and preserved in Burmese amber. This image shows two different views of the tick, which was described in a paper released in 2018.

3 of 20 George Poinar

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's a plant 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. Research on the flower came out in 2016.

4 of 20 University of Kansas

Spider with a tail

This ancient creepy-crawly dates back to about 100 million years ago. What's unusual about this spider trapped in amber is its tail-like appendage. University of Kansas paleontologist Paul Selden refers to the tail as a "flagelliform appendage" and believes it was used by the bug to sense the surrounding environment. 

5 of 20 Jason Dunlop/Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin

A 'mite-y' ant

In another stunning example of amber's ability to preserve moments past, this chunk of the material, revealed in 2014, 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.

6 of 20 David Grimaldi

World's oldest chameleon

Researchers in 2016 revealed what's believed to be the world's oldest chameleon. They found the baby lizard's skeleton preserved in amber among a collection of other critters, including a gecko. The Cretaceous Period specimens were donated to the American Museum of Natural History by a private collector.

7 of 20 Oregon State University

Frozen attack

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 Jr., 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."

8 of 20 Enrique Peñalver, et al

Ticks and dinosaurs

The history of ancient ticks got a little less mysterious in late 2017 with a study of ticks captured in Burmese amber dating back 99 million years to the Cretaceous period. This specimen shows a tick snuggled up with a dinosaur feather, suggesting the parasites likely fed on the now-extinct creatures. 

9 of 20 Oregon State University

Monkey blood inside an ancient tick

It's not just dinosaurs that had to contend with ticks in ancient times. This blood-engorged parasite dates back 20 million to 30 million years and contains monkey blood. Amber expert George Poinar Jr. detailed the fascinating discovery in a paper in 2017. The preserved blood may be the oldest mammalian blood ever found.

10 of 20 Oregon State University

Plant sex

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 Jr. said in a 2014 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."

11 of 20 George Poinar Jr./Oregon State University

Triple score

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."

12 of 20 George Poinar Jr.

Plague flea

The flea trapped in this piece of amber isn't half as interesting as what's on it -- a type of bacteria that might be related to the bubonic plague.

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 in 2015. "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.

13 of 20 Stuttgart State Museum of Natural History

Vintage beetle

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."

14 of 20 Dr. P. Vršanský

Roach ferocious

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 0.4 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 2015 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.

15 of 20 AMNH/D. Grimaldi and P. Barden

Social time

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 65.5 million to 145.5 million years ago.

Previously to this research's release in 2016, the only solid proof of the social order of insects had dated back to 20 million to 17 million years ago.

16 of 20 George Poinar Jr.

E.T. lookalike

This bizarre-looking insect bears a bit of a resemblance to the alien star of the 1982 sci-fi movie "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial." Oregon State University entomologist George Poinar Jr. co-authored a 2017 study on the strange creature and drew the connection between the insect's distinctive look and the fictional alien. 

17 of 20 George Poinar Jr.

Tripping dinos?

This bit of flora trapped inside amber that's about 100 million years old is thought to be the oldest grass ever found. Even more amazingly, there's a dash of fungus on top of it that's closely related to the ergot fungus, which can induce hallucinations.

"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 2015 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 Jr. said in the report.

18 of 20 Nature Communications

Wings frozen in time

The concept of dinosaurs only looking like big scaly lizards got turned around in 2016 with the reveal of 100-million-year-old wings fossilized in amber found in Myanmar. A study of the wings suggests they came from an extinct avian dinosaur with plumage similar to that of modern birds.

19 of 20 Ryan McKellar, Royal Sasketchewan Museum

Catch a dinosaur by the tail

The year 2016 was a big one for research into feathered dinosaurs. This amber specimen contains a feathered dinosaur tail dating to the mid-Cretaceous period of about 99 million years ago. 

The sticky amber also trapped an ant and some plant debris. The tail belonged to a very small juvenile dino called a coelurosaur. Researchers are looking to the fossil to learn more about the evolution of feathers.

20 of 20 Ming Bai/Chinese Academy of Sciences

A baby bird

This unfortunate baby bird met its fate in amber, but it didn't die in vain. In 2017, scientists hailed the discovery for the completeness of the specimen, which dates to around 100 million years ago. The hatchling appears to have feathers on its feet, legs and tail, but not much on its main body.

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