February 17, 2010

Amber: Illuminating Gems on Display at Museum of the Earth

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Four million years ago in a prehistoric forest in present-day Madagascar, a cricket resting on a tree branch suddenly became entrapped in sticky goo. Four million years later, at Ithaca’s Museum of the Earth, that cricket still sits as he did then — perfectly preserved in time, frozen still in that same sticky goo, which has now hardened into a glittering butterscotch jewel. Across the room, a necklace glistens with beads made from the same sparkling substance.

This magical gem, with its abilitiy to preserve ancient life, may seem like the stuff of legends, but in fact it is all around us, dripping from trees as near as New Jersey and as far as Myanmar.

The substance is amber, organic tree resin that has hardened over millions of years. Amber ranges from 1 million to 320 million years old, and it’s most commonly found in the Baltic region and in the Dominican Republic, but it can also be found in Mexico, Burma, Malaysia and other areas around the world.

This winter, the Museum of the Earth displays the exceptional qualities of amber in an exhibit called “Amber: Letting the Past Shine Through”, running until Feb. 21st. The exhibit includes a sample of the museum’s extensive permanent amber collection, featuring specimens collected from all over the world and preserving a wide range of prehistoric species, as well as educational resources and donations from the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

On why he chose to display the exhibit, Dr. Warren Allmon, director of the Museum of the Earth and a Cornell paleontology professor, said, “Amber is beautiful, and people who ordinarily wouldn’t care about fossils have heard of it. … For any museum who displays it, amber is a hook to get people to come in and learn something about fossils. Most people don’t carry around fossils on their neck or on their ears.”

Amber is deeply ingrained in human history — Stone Age humans carved amber into amulets and jewelry of mystical powers and spiritual significance. In Europe, amber was used for much more elaborate creations, most notably the Amber Room, an entire chamber created from amber in 18th-century Prussia. The room has since been destroyed, but a project to reconstruct the masterpiece is underway in Russia.

Today, amber serves a new purpose as a powerful tool for investigating the ancient past. While other fossils only offer a “compression” of an organism’s skeletal structure, amber preserves insects exactly they are, keeping internal structures and soft tissues intact.

Amber’s miraculous preservations are due to a long hardening process, during which tree resin polymerizes, or turns small molecules into bigger ones, and releases volatiles, or liquids, to embalm and preserve whatever is trapped inside. The substance becomes “officially” labeled amber after millions of years; before it is completely formed, the substance is known as copal and is much less rare.

Dr. David Grimaldi, curator of invertebrate zoology at the American Museum of Natural History, as well as an adjunct entomology professor at Cornell and the advisor to “Amber: Letting the Past Shine Through,” studies amber specimens with prehistoric insect inclusions to illuminate how ancient lineages of insects evolved.

Grimaldi and his team have made great paleontological strides through amber research; recently, for example, he discovered the oldest fossil mushrooms on record, preserved in amber that is over 90 million years old. A recent trip to India uncovered vast new deposits of amber, which, upon analysis, may prove promising for future breakthroughs.

He explains amber’s unique role in paleontology: “Amber still is the only way, outside of mummification, that long-dead organisms can be preserved with such fidelity. The organs and tissues aren’t just mummified or dried up; they’re actually embalmed.”

Amber’s exceptional powers of preservation help paleontologists better understand the genetic origins of life on Earth as we know it today. Prof. William Crepet, plant biology , specializes in the evolution of flowering plants and studies ancient flowers preserved in amber to find common ancestors of modern plants.

Just a few months ago, Crepet began working with new technology in his research, taking micro CT-scans of prehistoric flowers in amber in order to illuminate their internal structures and developing an apparatus with CHESS (Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source) that would offer him more insights into the genetic composition of ancient plants.

Crepet explains, “The way we work on organisms today is we see how fossils fit into sets of relationships that organisms have. We used to do these things by the seat of our pants, but we have a better idea of it now, because of the preservation of plants in amber.”

While amber is incredibly useful in the field of evolutionary paleontology, most people know it best for its use as jewelry. Amber jewelry, particularly gems from the Baltic region, has been made and worn throughout history and remains popular today.

The Titus Gallery in the Commons, owned by Susan Titus, hosts the most extensive amber collection in central and upstate New York, featuring jewelry, carvings, and amber specimens with insect inclusions. Titus, dubbed the “Amber Lady” by her customers, began collecting amber on a trip to Mexico, when she visited a village near an amber mine and bought specimens and carvings from Mayan villagers.

Now, her collection includes Baltic, Dominican, and Mexican amber, and continues to grow as she receives more and more pieces. On why she loves working with Amber, Titus said, “Amber is believed to be magic everywhere it’s found. … It’s so beautiful, and so old, and so mysterious; you never know what you’ll see inside.”

Original Author: Amanda First