August 5, 2014 | David F. Coppedge

Amber Alert: New Discoveries in Old Sap

Even old pieces of amber in a museum drawer can reveal unexpected surprises.

Several news pieces recently have focused on the dried tree sap known as amber.  Fossils in amber are among the very most exquisite of all, because they preserve the 3-D animals themselves with all their parts intact.

Roving through amber:  The Entomological Society of America announced the oldest “rove beetle” ever found, preserved beautifully in a piece of amber from France.  Rove beetles are members of the Omaliini tribe, the largest group of beetles with 60,000 members.  This one increases the fossil record of rove beetles by 100 million years from the Cenozoic into the Cretaceous, the abstract of the paper notes.  The press release includes a very detailed reconstruction made by imaging the inside of the opaque resin with X-rays.

Big old collection:  Roving through a decades-old collection of Dominican amber are producing new secrets.  Young scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign started combing through 160 pounds of amber collected back in the 1950s.  This amber, thought to be 20 million years old, provided some new evidence for evolution, the press release claims:

Perhaps the most striking discovery thus far is that of a pygmy locust, a tiny grasshopper the size of a rose thorn that lived 18- to 20-million years ago and fed on moss, algae and fungi. The specimen is remarkable because it represents an intermediate stage of evolution in the life of its subfamily of locusts (known as the Cladonotinae). The most ancient representatives of this group had wings, while modern counterparts do not. The newly discovered locust has what appear to be vestigial wings — remnant structures that had already lost their primary function.

If this is an example of evolution, then, it represents degradation: loss of a pre-existing complex trait, not like evolving new wings.

Live Science presented a photo gallery of the beautifully-preserved insects found in this collection.  Among the photos is an unidentified mammal hair, and two flies trapped in the act of mating.

Baltic Chinese immigrant:  Another big collection, this time from the Baltic Sea region, is being analyzed by scientists from the University of Bonn.  Science Daily shows a beautifully-preserved mosquito found in one of the 3,000 pieces being examined.  What’s weird about it is that this is a “Chinese mosquito” found across the world near Poland, some 10,000 km away from similar ones found in Fushun, China.  Thought to be 40-50 million years old, the Chinese immigrant presents a mystery:

The pieces from the Baltic region are slightly younger than the ones from Fushun-according to estimates, about 40 to 50 million years. At that time, Europe and Asia were divided by the Strait of Turgay, a wide arm of the ocean. Many researchers had assumed until now that this body of saltwater prevented species migrations between the continents—or at least, made it much harder. “Consequently, the great similarity of the included insects has been a great surprise to us,” said Rust. “We don’t know yet how that fits together.”

Outside of India, Fushun is one of the two rare amber sites in Asia.  Scientists studying samples from an open-pit mine there have so far found “arachnids and insects from more than 80 families” said to be 53 million years old.

The millions-of-years talk and the evolution-talk are worthless bits of noise in the news.  Exquisite fossils like these entombed in gem-like stones can be appreciated for their own sake without force-fitting them into a world view that is ridiculous, calling loss of wings “an intermediate stage in the evolution in the life” of something, and finding no evolution at all in millions of years.  Addicts must have their Darwine, the more aged the better.


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