Fossil spiders in Baltic amber

Anthonie Hellemond (Belgium) Spiders represent the most diverse group of obligate predators (that is, predators that feed solely on other animals) in terrestrial ecosystems today, with almost 48,000 extant species in 118 families described to date. The number increases annually by approximately 500 species as a result of new discoveries and it has been estimated that the true diversity may number around 160,000 extant species. This great diversity is no doubt at least in part due to their geological longevity, with the oldest known fossil spider dating back to the Carboniferous. In addition, spiders appear to have co-radiated along with their insect prey over geological time and they also appear to have been relatively resistant to extinction during the major events that eliminated many other terrestrial animal groups, such as the dinosaurs (Penney and Selden, 2011). Most people seem to presume that spiders do not have a very good fossil record on account of their very small size and their lack of a mineralised, bony skeleton. However, spiders actually have a very good fossil record, with 1,347 fossil species currently recognised. Fossil spiders occur in rocks of various different types, but the vast majority and best-preserved spiders are found as inclusions in amber from various localities dating back to the Cretaceous, although preservation tends to be better in the younger (for example, Miocene and Eocene) ambers. The best known of these deposits is Baltic amber, with more than 650 fossil spider species recognised (Penney et al., 2012), representing close to … Read More

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Siri Scientific Press: A UK-based publisher specialising in palaeontology

David Penny (UK) I have written this article as a summary of how I established myself in the fossil publishing business because it might be of interest to a general readership. First, a little background about myself is in order. I have had a life-long interest in natural history, especially entomology and arachnology. After completing a BSc in Zoology (1994) I gained a PhD in fossils preserved in amber (1999). I did a one-and-a-half-year stint in a curatorial role at a university museum, followed by four and a half years of funded post-doctoral research. Following a short period of unemployment, I was offered a short-term post-doc in the USA. However, prior to taking up this position, I realised that there was much more to life than worrying about journal impact factors and where my next grant might come from. I also found some of the politics of academia particularly disagreeable and so decided to ‘give up’ science, although this was easier said than done. I disposed of all my worldly possessions, apart from (strangely enough) my amber books, research papers and my laptop, then moved to West Africa, where I found myself with a lot of free time. I kept myself busy wandering around the forests, photographing animals (mainly spiders and insects) and plants, in addition to recording field observations and collecting ecological data (I found it difficult not to do science). I also wrote a book on the topic I had been researching for more than a decade: Dominican … Read More

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Fossil crustaceans as parasites and hosts

Adiël Klompmaker (USA) Who would like to carry a parasite? I bet not many people would like to have one or more. They are nevertheless very common in humans and in other organisms, and can affect entire food webs including keystone species. They tend to be small compared to the host and the vast majority of them are soft-bodied. Despite their small size and soft appearance, they can affect the host substantially, for example, leading to a reduced growth rate and less offspring. Much of the same holds true for crustaceans – they are affected by parasites and can act as parasites themselves. For example, parasitic crustaceans are found among the isopods and copepods. Given the widespread occurrence of parasitism in and by crustaceans today, a fossil record of such parasitism may be expected. Swellings in fossil crabs and squat lobsters So what does the fossil record look like? I have been fortunate to have worked on this under-studied field of research. During my PhD research, I found various swellings in fossil crabs and squat lobsters (decapods from the superfamily Galatheoidea) during and after field work in northern Spain in reef carbonates from the mid-Cretaceous (upper Albian). They appeared to occur regularly in the back part of the carapaces of these crustaceans. Fig. 1. Bopyrid isopods from the species Orthione griffenis (large female and small male), removed from the right gill chamber of a modern mud shrimp (Upogebia pugettensis). (Photo by Stephen Ausmus, USDA Agricultural Research Service, http://www.bugwood.org.) This swelling … Read More

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Highlights from the Museum am Löwentor in Germany

Jack Wilkin (UK) The Museum am Löwentor in Stuttgart, Baden-Württemberg, is one of the world’s greatest depositories of fossils. The museum was founded in 1985 and, since then, it has built up a vast collection of over 4.1 million fossils and has a 3,500m2 exhibition space, spilt over two levels. It is organised in chronological order. As you progress through the building, you can trace the evolution of life on Earth from the first cells all the way to the present, telling a more-or-less complete story of Germany’s geological history. This brief article will focus on just a few of the highlights at the museum. The amber collection The museum houses roughly 30,000 amber specimens from around the world, including samples from the Dominican Republic, the Baltics and the Lebanon, to name just a few places. The highlights of the collection include the largest piece of amber in the world from the Miocene of Borneo, as well as the world’s biggest damselfly and dragonfly inclusions. Triassic vertebrates There is an extensive collection of Triassic vertebrates from Baden-Württemberg, including, not just complete skeletal reconstructions, but also realistic life models. Fig. 1. Exhibits at the museum.One group that is featured in the exhibit were the placodonts – an enigmatic group of marine reptiles that superficially resemble turtles, although the two groups are unrelated. Many species, such as Placodus gigas, had large, flat teeth designed for crushing shells. The apex land predator of Central Europe at the time was the 5.6m, Batrachotomus. It … Read More

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Sub-fossils in copal: An under-valued resource

Dr David Penney and Dr David I Green (UK) Copal (derived from the Spanish copalli meaning incense), the precursor of amber, is subfossilised tree resin not old or polymerised enough to be classed as amber. Given that the transformation of resin into copal and then into amber is dependent on factors such as temperature and pressure, there is no set age at which one turns into the other and the nomenclature (with respect to age) of these different transitional stages is still being debated. Some authors have proposed an arbitrary age of 2Ma to demarcate the transition from copal to amber, whereas others have suggested classifying anything that can be carbon dated as copal and anything too old for radiocarbon dating as amber. The debate continues and it seems that the age at which copal becomes amber will remain controversial for the foreseeable future. Furthermore, reaching a consensus terminology has been hampered by both amber researchers and dealers complicating the issue with terms such as sub-fossil resin, young amber, copal amber and so on. Fig. 1. Orb-web spider (Araneae: Araneidae) in Colombian copal. (From the collection of S Shawcross.) Nonetheless, copal preserves insects and other arthropods in the same way as amber and, given the younger age, the inclusions are often preserved with stunning, life-like fidelity. Remarkably, and in contrast to amber, very little research has focused on inclusions in copal because of its young age relative to amber. Such specimens are not deemed old enough to be of any … Read More

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Amber: Frozen moments in time

Gary Platt (UK) Amber has a deep fascination for people, both as a gem and as a chance to look back into the past with a remarkable clarity. Its warm, lustrous touch beguiles us and the remarkable inclusions sometimes found within it capture our imagination. Fig. 1. Ant in Baltic amber – Hymenoptera sp. Amber is found all over the world including, nearer to home, the Isle of Wight. This article looks at some aspects of amber that might interest both the casual and the informed reader. Formation of amber Amber begins as resin exuded from trees millions of years ago. Most known deposits of amber come from various tree species that are now extinct. Baltic amber was produced by a tree called Pinites succinifer, a tree sharing many characteristics of the modern genus Pseudolarix. In appearance, it would have looked similar to a pine or spruce tree. Fig. 2. Fly in Baltic amber – Diptera sp. The resin may have originally been used as a defensive mechanism against insect infestation or fungal attack. Once released from the tree, the resin begins to go through a number of stages to become amber. The first stage involves the evaporation of volatile oils. The oils, called “turpenes”, slowly permeate out of the amber. This may take many thousands of years before the process turns the resin into something approaching the structure of amber. Turpenes give resin its distinctive and powerful odour. Fig. 3. Gnat in Baltic amber – Dipteria cecidomyiidae. Following the … Read More

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Historical note on amber

Blake Reher (USA) Throughout Roman times, amber was considered the ‘Gold of the North’. It was believed to have medicinal properties that cured arthritis, protected people from suffering mental illness, and healed sore throats. People also thought it had magical properties that gave the wearer bravery. Amber was also a symbol of God’s presence. Workers harvested amber from the Baltic regions in Russia. Merchants transported large quantities of it along roads and rivers to the Mediterranean area in Italy, the centre of the Roman Empire. The Romans used it in making jewellery and it was a luxury product that helped develop a trade network in Europe. Without this valuable product and the trading routes it used, Europe may not have developed as quickly. Amber is fossilised tree sap. The colour of this sap is yellowish brown, but can also be other colours. The sap sometimes entombs living things such as bugs and leaves, and occasionally larger objects, which can create spectacularly well-preserved fossils. Fig 1. An ant inside Baltic amber. Image used with permission. © Anders L. Damgaard, http://www.amber-inclusions.dk. About the author Blake Reher is a member of the Pikes Peak Pebble Pups and the Colorado Springs Mineralogical Society. He is also a volunteer ranger at the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. He is 16 and attends Cheyenne Mountain High School.

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Fossil arachnids

Dr David Penney (UK) and Dr Jason Dunlop (Germany) When it comes to fossils, arachnids are not a group that obviously springs to mind. However, with more than 100,000 described living species, Arachnida form the second most diverse group of primarily land-living organisms after the insects. And they probably made up a significant proportion of the Earth’s biodiversity in the past, just as they do in terrestrial ecosystems today. Despite this, arachnids have usually received only a cursory mention in palaeontology textbooks. In fairness, they are not as common as trilobites or brachiopods in the fossil record, and are usually found only under conditions of exceptional preservation. Yet, despite their rarity, we aim to show here that there are more fossil arachnids out there than is sometimes appreciated. What are arachnids? Arachnids are not insects and can easily be differentiated from them by the fact that they have eight legs and, in general, two principal parts to the body. Arachnids also lack both wings and antennae. In total, there are 16 arachnid orders (including four extinct) and all of them have a fossil record. Despite the advent of computer cladistic analysis and new molecular techniques, the relationships between the different arachnid orders continues to be debated and there is no universally accepted consensus regarding how they are all related to one another. Fig 1. Basic body plans of the fossil and extant arachnid orders. Note that the eye arrangement in Uraraneida is unknown.Arachnids as fossils Fossil arachnids date back more … Read More

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

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 … Read More

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Fossils in amber (Part 2): Preparation and study

Dr David Penney and Dr David Green (UK) This is the second in a series of articles concerning fossils in amber. In the first, we focused on the biodiversity of organisms in the major deposits of the world, including the techniques available for distinguishing genuine fossils from fakes (see Fossils in amber (Part 1): Biodiversity). When the first fossil amber specimens were examined back in the 1600s, only very basic microscopy was available to examine the inclusions. In recent years, great progress has been made in amber preparation procedures, photomicroscopy and advanced imaging techniques, which can all now be employed in the study of fossils in amber. Optical properties of amber To understand the rationale for the preparation techniques described below, it is worth reviewing the way light passes through amber and the way that images are formed. Amber is usually transparent or translucent. The more transparent it is, the less the light is absorbed as it travels through the specimen. As opacity increases, more light is absorbed and inclusions become more difficult to see. Arthropod inclusions are visible because they have differing opacities and refractive indices to the enclosing amber. When light rays cross boundaries between media with different refractive indices (such as amber and air) they bend. If the surface is flat and polished, the light rays bend in a predictable manner and it is easy to see what lies within. If a surface is curved, irregular, undulating or scratched, the light rays bend in different directions, depending … Read More

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Fossils in amber (Part 1): Biodiversity

Dr David Penney and Dr David Green (UK) It is almost two decades since the original blockbuster movie, Jurassic Park, brought the existence of fossil insects in amber (fossilised tree resin) into the limelight. Since then, numerous books and research papers have been published. Fossiliferous amber deposits are still being discovered, including, in recent years, the first major deposits in Africa, India and Australia. The market for fossils in amber experienced a boom in the 1990s, but it has since declined for various reasons, including fakery, copal (sub-fossil resin) being sold as genuine amber and the current economic conditions. Nevertheless, there are many reputable sources for those wishing to develop their passion for amber – a substance that has fascinated people for millennia. It has been endowed with mystical, magical and medicinal properties, and used as an artistic medium and in jewellery. However, today, it is probably most famous for the fossil insect inclusions it preserves with life-like fidelity. It is these that are the focus of this article. This is the second part of a series of articles on fossils in amber. The first is: Fossils in amber (Part 1): Preparation and study. Important fossiliferous deposits There are almost 200 known amber deposits around the world, some dating from as early as the mid-Carboniferous. Relatively few have produced abundant biological inclusions and those that do occur only in strata of Tertiary or Cretaceous age. Many of these ambers were produced by different tree families under somewhat different environmental conditions. … Read More

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