An amber collection, stored for decades in buckets beneath a museum sink, has been re-discovered, revealing a vast wealth of information about the ancient world.
Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS) researchers are examining the amber, originally discovered in the Dominican Republic in 1959. The specimens, rich in plant and animal remains, were stored in a closet, where they were largely forgotten until 2011. About 160 pounds of the material was recovered from storage, and investigators are carefully polishing windows in the amber to get glimpses inside.
At least four previously unidentified species have been recognized in the long-forgotten specimens. These include a relative of the grasshopper, a type of pygmy locust and two newly discovered varieties of flies.
Also found in the amber were a variety of other finds, including preserved beetles, ants, wasps and midges, a type of fly. Hair and fungi were also discovered in the long-lost amber. Put together, these artifacts preserve vast amounts of information about the ecosystem of 20 million years ago, in the area in which they were found.
"Fossil insects can provide lots of insight into the evolution of specific traits and behaviors, and they also tell us about the history of the time period. They're a tremendous resource for understanding the ancient world, ancient ecosystems and the ancient climate - better even, perhaps, than dinosaur bones," Sam Heads, a paleontologist with the INHS, said.
Amber is fossilized tree resin, and like most resins, is sticky before it hardens. During this time, insects, pieces of vegetation and even small mammals and birds can become trapped in the goo. The bodies can then be perfectly preserved for millions of years, and have been coveted for jewelry and collections since Neolithic times, at the end of the Stone Age.
This sample was collected by Milton Sanderson, an entomologist for INHS, in the late 1950s, before being stowed away for over 50 years.
When analysis is complete, the group will have the largest unbiased collection of the material in the world. The best and most interesting of the fossil finds will be digitized, and the data will be made freely available on the internet.
The Dominican Republic is a valuable source of amber, because vast quantities of tree resin dripped to the forest floor over millions of years. Biologists believe trees there may have either leaked resin from their branches onto the forest floor, or the substance may have oozed from the base of trees.
Illinois Natural History Survey researchers created a video showing the amber and some of the wealth of biological material discovered in the ancient gemstones.