Fossilized tree sap, called amber, is an absolutely amazing substance. It lasts for an incredibly long time, and it has yielded some of the most incredible fossil discoveries of our time. If you need more evidence that amber is a paleontologists’ best friend, look no further than the new paper published today in Current Biology.
The study reveals the discovery of an ancient beetle perfectly preserved in tree sap believed to be nearly 100 million years old. 100 million years. It’s a length of time that is almost unfathomable, but there the amber sits with the unlucky beetle still stuck inside. Mother Nature sure is neat.
Amazingly, the pristine beetle specimen isn’t even the most exciting thing about the discovery. Near the beetle, inside the thick amber casing, are tiny pollen grains. The small specks are easy to overlook at first glance, but they’re incredibly important for scientists.
Scientists don’t know all that much about the plants that covered the Earth 100 million years ago, and they know even less about the habits of the insects that pollinated them. This tiny beetle and its pollen payload are a fantastic window into the ancient world, and it’s providing researchers with a much-needed marking post on the timeline of pollinating insects.
It’s long been believed that beetles like this one played a major role in pollinating non-flowering plants for millions of years, and likely preceded the emergence of flowering plants and the flying insects that still help pollinate them today. Catching an ancient beetle “red handed,” so to speak, with collections of tiny pollen grains nearby is an incredible stroke of luck, and the fact that the beetle and pollen are so well preserved is just icing on the cake.
If you were to travel back in time about 100 million years you’d see a whole lot of things that you can’t see today. Dinosaurs roamed the land and those would have been pretty neat to see in person, but something slithering beneath your feet would have looked a lot like it does today: the snake.
Now, the discovery of a baby snake in present day Myanmar is helping researchers to better understand how snakes have changed over millions and millions of years. The fossilized remains of the tiny snake, encased in amber, are thought to be around 99 million years old, and it offers a rare window into the distant past. The research was published in Science Advances.
Snakes are incredibly successful creatures. They’re one of the few examples of an evolutionary line that has been able to endure the worst hardships planet Earth has ever seen, remaining largely unchanged for massive stretches of time. This particular specimen, nicknamed the “Dawn Snake of Myanmar,” would have lived in the shady forests of the Cretaceous period.
This was the same time that hulking beasts like the Tyrannosaurus, Triceratops, and Spinosaurus were dominating the planet, and this newly-discovered juvenile snake would have seemed incredibly tiny by comparison. The little hatchling measured less than two inches long, which matches up with some species of snake that we see today, but the fossil isn’t totally complete.
The body of the little creature is now missing its head. The scientists aren’t quite sure why or how the snake was decapitated, inviting images of a dinosaur chomping down on the pint-sized snake as it tried its best to escape, but it’s equally likely that the remains of the snake had begun to fall apart before the tree sap managed to smother it.
It’s the first example of a dinosaur-age snake that clearly lived on the forest floor, and that’s significant for a number of reasons. The fact that snakes have remained mostly the same for so long means that they must be doing something very right, and discovering how snakes took to different environments allows scientists to better explain why they have defied extinction again and again.
If there’s one thing that Jurassic Park taught us (besides the fact that Jeff Goldblum is a national treasure and should be cherished) it’s that ancient tree sap is really really good at preserving bugs. Despite the wealth of pseudoscience and outright fiction in Jurassic Park, the ability of hardened amber to offer a glimpse into the past is very much true.
Insects tend to be the creatures most often discovered in fossilized amber, but every once in a while paleontologists strike gold and find something else. Last year, researchers revealed a nearly-complete bird that had been trapped in the sticky tree goo, and now we have another animal to add to the list. In a large chunk of amber from Myanmar, scientists have discovered what are thought to be some of the oldest frogs ever discovered.
In the amber, which was found an area that scientists believe was once a bustling rain forest, a total of four pint-sized frogs have been uncovered. The well-preserved specimens are in such good shape that scientists have been able to determine that they are entirely new to science. Three-dimensional models of the frogs were created to allow scientists to study them closely without the risk of damage.
“Frogs are a familiar and diverse component of tropical forests around the world,” the researchers write in a new study published in Scientific Reports. “Yet there is little direct evidence from the fossil record for the antiquity of this association.”
These tiny frogs help to provide that sought-after data. The fossils are the oldest examples of tropical frogs on record, dating back to around 99 million years ago. At that time, the Earth was quite a bit different, and dinosaurs ruled the land. These modest amphibians are a lot like the tropical frogs we see in rain forests today, but they would have likely counted certain dinosaurs species among their primary threats.
Remarkably, scientists weren’t actually the ones that first discovered these particular fossils. According to National Geographic, private Chinese collectors had obtained the specimens for their own collections, but chose to donate them for study. If they hadn’t, who knows if the new species would have ever been identified.
To humans, ticks are vile little creatures that do little but annoy and at times cause pain. You’ve probably never felt sorry for one of the little buggers under any circumstances, but this 100-year-old tick discovered in Myanmar might actually tug at your heart strings a bit. Discovered trapped in ancient amber, the tiny creature had one very, very bad day.
The tick, which was spotted by a German collector and eventually passed on to scientists for closer examination, wasn’t just suffocated in hardened tree sap. The pint-sized parasite was actually trapped in a spider’s web before it was swallowed up by tree goo. It was wrapped up like a present, obviously having gotten the attention of the resident spider, and was likely waiting to be eaten when it was enveloped by the thick resin. Poor little fella.
The specimen is thought to be roughly 100 million years old, which is pretty special when it comes to tick fossils.
“They’re rare because ticks don’t crawl around on tree trunks,” Paul Seiden, distinguished professor of biology at the University of Kansas, explained. “Amber is tree resin, so it tends to capture things that crawl around on bark or the base of the tree. But ticks tend to be on long grass or bushes, waiting for passing animals to brush up against them, though some of them can be on birds or squirrels, or maybe a little crawling dinosaur.”
Obviously, the researchers don’t know exactly what circumstances led to the tick’s demise. It’s not known if the little parasite had already been bitten and preserved for later by its spider foe, or if it was simply wrapped up and tossed aside when it was unexpectedly engulfed in the sap.
“We don’t know what kind of spider this was,” Selden added. “A spider’s web is stretched between twigs to catch prey that flies or bumps or crawls into it. As prey gets stuck, it adheres to the web and starts to struggle. Maybe some things can escape after some struggle, so the spider rushes to it out from hiding and wraps it in swaths of silk to immobilize it, to stop it escaping or destroying the web.”
Whatever the case, it’s a tiny time capsule that tells a tale identical to those we see today. Over 100 million years ago the Earth was a much different place, but in many ways it was exactly the same.
If you’re one of the many people who have a fear of spiders, going back in time 100 million years apparently wouldn’t have done you any good. A new, bizarre spider-like creature has just been discovered in Southeast Asia, having been encased in amber during the Cretaceous period some 100 million years ago, and it might be more terrifying than any of the creepy-crawlies lurking in the dark corners of your basement.
The creature, which has been named Chimerarachne yingi, boasts a strange mix of features that we see on modern-day arachnids. It has eight spider-like legs and fangs up front, while its rear end is dominated by silk-producing spinnerets punctuated by a long, thin tail. So, what is it? Well, believe it or not, scientists actually can’t decide.
Some modern-day arachnids like whip scorpions (which aren’t even technically scorpions at all) have long tails which act as sensory inputs. However, unlike this newly-discovered species, whip scorpions also boast powerful pincers which they use both offensively and defensively.
Research papers detailing the discovery, which were published in Nature, are clear about one thing: C. yingi isn’t a spider, but it’s also not far off. Arachnids have a twisted history, and paleontologists know that some of the closest ancient relatives to spiders didn’t survive through to the modern day. However, the researchers are taking their time in actually classifying this new creature because they want to be absolutely sure that it either belongs in an existing category or is the first example of an entirely new branch.
Remarkably, the amber in which the four known examples of C. yingi were discovered wasn’t yanked out of the ground by the scientists themselves. The specimens were actually found in Myanmar where amateur amber hunters bring their finds to sell to the highest bidder. In this case, the ancient fossilized tree sap held something that was previously unknown as far as science is concerned.
The only good news for you arachnophobes is that even if you’d have run across this creepy little critter a hundred million years ago you might not have even noticed it. At only about 2.5 millimeters long, it wouldn’t have caught your eye if it were scurrying along the ground.