Photos: Insects Trapped in Amber Offer a Glimpse of Prehistoric Bug Life

By Jennifer Welsh | October 25, 2010 5:46 pm

A huge bounty of amber unearthed in India is giving researchers a peak at the wildlife that inhabited the area 50 million years ago, via the insects that are trapped inside it. The findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggest that the Indian subcontinent was not as isolated as previously thought.

“We know India was isolated, but … the biological evidence in the amber deposit shows that there was some biotic connection,” says David Grimaldi, curator in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology at the [American Museum of Natural History]. [Press release]

About 150 million years ago, the Indian tectonic plat separated from the African plate and began its 100 million year journey to Asia. During that long journey the subcontinent was isolated from all other continents, giving its wildlife the chance to evolve in distinctly different ways (much like the evolution of marsupials in Australia). Since the amber was deposited in the form of sticky tree resin 50 million years ago, it gives researchers insight into the insects that were adrift on the subcontinent.

“The amber shows, similar to an old photo, what life looked like in India just before the collision with the Asian continent,” says Jes Rust, professor of Invertebrate Paleontology at the Universität Bonn in Germany. “The insects trapped in the fossil resin cast a new light on the history of the sub-continent.” [Press release]

Many of the arthropods found in the amber look very similar to those found in Asia at the time. The team reasoned that there much have been a connection between the two continents for some time before they actually merged, allowing life to connect through islands. The other possibility is that the slow movement of the Indian subcontinent happened earlier than previously believed.

In total, the team has identified more than 700 arthropods, a group of animals that includes insects, crustaceans and arachnids. “They are so well preserved. It’s like having the complete dinosaur, not just the bones. You can see all the surface details on their bodies and wings. It’s fantastic,” Rust told the Guardian. The remains of two praying mantises were also found. [The Guardian]

The treasure trove of amber is one of the biggest on record–150 kilograms of it has survived the last 52 million years. It was unearthed in India’s Gujarat province from an open-pit mining operation, which brings these deep layers to the surface. The researchers collected the amber over the last three years.

The amber itself also yields new information. The original resin came from a tropical tree family called Dipterocarpaceae that today makes up about 80 percent of forest canopies in Southeast Asia. This means this tree family (and tropical forests in general) are twice as old as researchers previously thought.

“The evidence is beginning to accumulate that tropical forests are ancient,” Grimaldi said. “They probably go back to right after the K-T boundary,” between the Cretaceous and Tertiary periods 65 million years ago, when non-avian dinosaurs went extinct. [Livescience]

Related content:
Not Exactly Rocket Science: Giant, fruit-eating monitor lizard discovered in the Philippines
80beats: Scientist Smackdown: Ancient Indian Hieroglyphs, or Just Pretty Pictures?
80beats: Tropical Animals May Get a Dangerous Metabolic Jolt From Climate Change
Visual Science: Lucky Accident: Random Chunk of Amber Holds 95-Million-Year-Old Wasp
DISCOVER: Golden Window on a Lost World

Images: David Grimaldi / AMNH

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World, Top Posts
  • nick

    Any DNA ? Where’s my cloned, saddled-up and ready to ride T-Rex already? Screw jetpacks, that’s the future!

  • Captain Skellett

    Where do you GET such amazing pictures? Every week I find something here absolutely breathtaking.

  • Eliza Strickland

    Thanks for the kind words, Captain Skellett!

    We are much obliged to the researchers and institutions who generously provide such images. And it gives us enormous pleasure to share them with our readers.

    — Eliza, DISCOVER online news editor

  • Richard Durant

    Was anything else of interest found in the amber besides insects ?

  • Sankar Talukdar

    The spider photograph displayed is not so clear with specific Taxonomic characters, So please tell the taxonomic status of it(the specific,generic name and family name.

    This will help me to co-relate the species with spider evolution in nature,
    Please also mention if any such prediction briefed with this information.
    Please send me some spider images other than the published one to understand the original situation.

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  • ผ้าม่าน

    You might guess that I am from Bangkok thailand, I am very interested in arthropods, yes there is a connection between various countries although nowadays they may be separated geographically, but I believe that the earth was a lot different back then when the masses of land were closer together, look at the continents, don’t they look like they can fit in a jigsaw puzzle? Africa and South America for example. I believe that India also shared a geographical location with many Asian countries, and the species developed therefore resemble each other closely due to micro-evolution. In Thailand, we do quite a lot of study on entomology, and the findings also are supporting this hypothesis. Great blog! I am not sure that my comment is being submitted? I am reposting the comment in case it didn’t first time.

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