Ancient salamander in amber shocks scientists

A baby salamander preserved in amber presents a scientific surprise, especially since it was discovered in a place where there are no known salamanders.

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser
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Salamander in amber
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Salamander in amber
This tiny salamander is a big discovery. George Poinar, Jr./Oregon State University

There can be a lot of drama in a drop of amber. Scientists at Oregon State University imagine a desperate struggle that took place between a baby salamander and an unknown foe over 20 million years ago.

The salamander may have squeaked away minus a leg, but it couldn't escape the sticky resin that left it wonderfully intact for those scientists to discover many, many years later.

The salamander is writing a new chapter in the history of fauna in the Caribbean. There are no salamanders living on islands in the Caribbean today, but the amber-coated amphibian found in the Dominican Republic shows there once were.

OSU Professor Emeritus George Poinar, Jr. was in on the discovery. "There are very few salamander fossils of any type, and no one has ever found a salamander preserved in amber," he said in a university release on the finding. "And finding it in Dominican amber was especially unexpected, because today no salamanders, even living ones, have ever been found in that region."

The salamander is an extinct, previously undiscovered species that now sports the name Palaeoplethodon hispaniolae. Poinar speculates there may have been a climatic event or especially efficient predator that wiped out the salamander population in the Caribbean.

This isn't the only unusual fossil to appear in recent years. Researchers unveiled a fossilized, blood-engorged mosquito in 2013, and a fossil of a four-legged snake fascinated scientists earlier this year.

The salamander fossil dates back to between 20 million and 30 million years old and was found in an amber mine. The amber sample containing the hatchling measures under an inch in length. A paper on the find is published online in the journal Palaeodiversity.