Rare amber inclusion of harvestman donated to Natural History Museum, London

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Terence Collingwood (UK)

Recently, I was lucky enough to unearth a prize find – a 40-million-year-old, spider-like insect perfectly preserved in amber. I found the valuable harvestman in a piece of prehistoric amber and considered it to be of such scientific interest that I donated it to the National History Museum in London.

Fig. 1. Piece of Baltic Amber, slightly larger than a £2 coin.

Amber is the name for fossil tree resin, which is appreciated for its colour and beauty and used for the manufacture of ornamental objects and jewellery. Although not mineralised, it is sometimes considered to be a gemstone. It can also act as nature’s time capsule, telling us about life in ancient forests. This is because, millions of years ago, the original resin was once a gluey trap, which captured small insects as it oozed from tree bark. Therefore, it is extremely important for understanding the history of prehistoric land-living animals, particularly small insects that are not often preserved in rocks.

I have been buying, collecting and selling fossils for several years and, more recently, for my shop I Dig Dinos in Rochester High Street. I consider every piece of amber a chance to examine a past ecosystem and an opportunity to gain insight into an extinct age. Therefore, each piece of amber I buy is examined and labelled meticulously and, every now and then, I find something a little different, rare or unusual. (I even make jewellery, bracelets, earrings, cufflinks and charms from this versatile and beautiful material.)

Fig. 2. This juvenile harvestman has very thin, 6mm-long legs. The specimen has been donated to the Natural History Museum to add to its collection of 5,000 pieces of amber.

Last year, I was lucky enough to find the rare harvestman preserved in Baltic Amber, which is somewhere between 34 and 40Ma old, and the specimen is an excellent example of its type. Finding it was pure chance, but I realised straight away that it was something special. My understanding is that Dicranopalpus ramiger (to give its scientific name) is a welcome addition to the National History Museum’s collection, as it only has one other specimen, which is not as clear or complete.

Harvestmen look similar to spiders, but they are not. They have oval bodies and very thin legs. While spiders have their heads and abdomens separated by a waist, harvestmen’s are fused together, and they also cannot produce silk. They belong to the class Arachnids, which also includes spiders, scorpions, ticks and mites.

The specimen I donated is a juvenile. Its body is the size of a pinhead and it has very thin, 6mm-long legs. It was preserved in a lump of Baltic Amber slightly larger than a £2 coin.

Commenting on the NHM website about this specimen, Dr Andrew Ross points out that “complete harvestmen are rare finds. It’s more common to find just the legs in amber, where a trapped leg or two were sacrificed, so the harvestman could escape the sticky resin. This is a particularly impressive example, because all its legs are present and still attached to the body.”

Fig. 3. The body is just the size of a pinhead.

As a ‘thank you’ for my donation, Dr Ross gave me a rare glimpse of the Museum’s amber. None of the pieces have been on display to the public, because the Museum does not have the necessary specialist display facilities. Although I have been to the Museum many times before, nothing prepared me for a personal tour. Donating the specimen was really exciting, but the tour was amazing and being allowed to view the collection up close was fantastic.

The fossil will now join the other 5,000 pieces of amber – many containing more than one insect – in the Museum’s palaeontology collection.

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