nature's preservative

More Than a Sticky Bug-Buster
Better Than Embalming
Natural Defense Mechanism Becomes Research Tool

Suppose you found a preservative that could protect life from the distant past. A storage system that didn't rely on people or machines -- not even electricity. Something that could even partly preserve the delicate chemistry of life.

spider in amber Spiders usually don't fossilize because their external skeletons are softer than those of most other arthropods. This is one of the rare spiders found trapped in amber. Photograph by Laurie Minor-Penland.
Courtesy National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution.

Cool tool?
It turns out that scientist have located such a miraculous system. It's called amber, and it's produced when resin -- incorrectly called "sap" or "pitch" -- hardens into a solid that excludes air and water.

Trees make resin to make life miserable for pathogenic microbes, and against insects with habits that trees find annoying, like chewing, boring and tunneling into trees.

But resin is more than a defense mechanism. If you've ever climbed a pine tree, you know resin is the stickiest stuff around. Resin flowing from a tree -- think of it as organic flypaper -- traps insects, flowers, and small lizards. Once ensnared in resin's everlasting embrace, these organisms remain frozen in position as the resin hardens into amber.

Amber is the best preservative for ancient life, far more useful than the better-known fossils. Insects, lizards, leaves and flowers trapped in amber show details, chemistry, and 3-dimensional structure that can't be replicated in any other records of the distant past.

Handily enough, amber doesn't just exclude air and water -- it even contains preservative chemicals.

Insects trapped in amber have long been a mainstay of entomology (defined). But within the past decade, there's been an epidemic of amber-fever among other biologists who study the stuff. In January, for example, scientists announced the only flowers known to have been preserved from the Cretaceous period, which ended with the disappearance of the dinosaurs, 65 million years ago. And they found the oldest-known mosquito -- perhaps the ancestor of trillions of pestiferous blood-suckers (talk about a heavy burden of ancestral guilt...)

Where does one find amber?

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