Call it nature's shrink wrap. Amber, the sap of ancient trees, quickly surrounds anything unfortunate to become mired in its stickiness and then hardens through the ages into gemstone. Although it's unlikely that amber can yield the DNA of dinosaurs, a la Jurassic Park , the tree resin can preserve the remains of insects and other organisms in great detail over vast time frames.
That's what researchers have discovered in a rock formation in Ethiopia-a veritable mother lode of ants, wasps, spiders, and other such creatures dating back about 95 million years. They've also discovered bits of ferns, fungi, and plants, as well as feathers, mammal hairs, and even small reptiles-all trapped in amber. The team hopes the discoveries, published online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, will yield important clues about the ecology of a thriving tropical ecosystem that existed during the period scientists call the mid-Cretaceous.
Mouse over an image to see its caption. Credit for all images: A. Schmidt et al./PNAS.