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How are Insects Trapped in Amber?

trapped in amber

Some of the most spectacular pieces of Baltic amber contain insects and other life forms within. These long-dead creatures are forever on show, encased within their golden tombs. But how does this amazing situation happen? Baltic amber is made of fossilized tree resin, so the creatures became stuck while the resin was a liquid. The substance then hardened through a process of petrification, turning into amber. How did the insects get stuck in there in the first place? Aistre for Amber will take a closer look at what causes insect fossilization within amber.

Amber Begins with Resin

Each piece of amber started as resin that oozed from a diseased or damaged tree. Resin is a thick, sticky, reddish/yellowish liquid that flows from certain types of trees. It provides the tree with some protection from insects, small animals, and pathogens. All around the world, there are specific trees that secrete resin that has been useful to people throughout our history. For example, frankincense and myrrh are derived from resin, as is turpentine. If the soft resin is allowed to harden and petrify in the right conditions over millions of years, it turns into the gorgeous amber we can find today.

Then an Insect Comes Along

When tree resin is fresh and still flowing, an insect or small animal can come along and get trapped by the sticky substance. Sometimes only a portion of the animal gets stuck. While it attempts to free itself, other blobs of resin come along and cover more of the animal until it’s totally engulfed by the goo. This is why you can sometimes see distinct layers in amber. Different parts of it came down in separate flows and solidify at different rates. However, if a smaller animal or insect gets stuck in the tree resin, it can be totally encased within that one single layer of amber. This “flash flood” of tree resin creates some of the best-preserved fossils of ancient animals, insects, and plants available.

A Fossil is Created

After an insect or animal is caught in tree resin, the liquid will begin to harden. If the resin is a kind that won’t decay too quickly, and it finds itself in the perfect protected environment, it will continue to harden with age. Over millions of years, molecular polymerization occurs due to high pressure and temperature (usually due to the layers of earth above the deposit of resin). The exact time it takes for resin to completely turn into amber varies, since it would depend upon the surrounding conditions. In general, younger fossilized resin is softer than older resin.

Amber is different than the rocky fossils you can find buried within the earth. Other fossils are created when water flows into remains, leaving trace amounts of minerals behind. Over a long period of time, the minerals completely take over the remains, leaving behind a stone outline of the former organic tissue. Amber is different. It fossilizes relatively quickly and essentially dehydrates the organic contents within. In some cases, this process can even preserve soft tissue, including parts of the nervous system! Some scientists have claimed that they have extracted samples of DNA from animals that were encased in amber, just like in the plot of the movie Jurassic Park. Fortunately, we have yet to bring back any dinosaurs from the dead.

In the End

Amber fossils provide us with a miraculous window into the past. It allows us to study some species of insects, animals, plants, and other remains from the distant past more accurately. It’s a wonder that these creatures were so well preserved for us to find thousands of years later. As long as we keep finding fossilized remains inside amber, we will continue to have a yellow-tinted glimpse into the past and can continue to learn about the history of our planet in a unique way.

Since each piece of amber is a unique organic gem, it's important to store your jewelry properly. Here is a guide to help you keep your amber jewelry safe for years to come!