Massive Collection of Ancient Amber Finally Gives Up Its Secrets

In the late 1950s, an entomologist named Milton Sanderson collected some 160 pounds of 20 million year old amber in the Dominican Republic. Now, 50 years later, that amber is finally giving up its secrets, including a fascinating insect named for David Attenborough.

As most stories like this go, the amber sat for years collecting dust in a group of boring old buckets. The collection was rediscovered just a few years ago, in 2010. Now, a group of researchers led by paleontologist Sam Heads, is scrutinizing each fragment. Since the surface of each of the amber bits has become oxidized, that process begins by scraping away at the outer layers to create "windows" through which the researchers can peer inside.

Massive Collection of Ancient Amber Finally Gives Up Its Secrets

Left: Milton Sanderson, with some of his amber samples.

They've already found a dizzying array of preserved life: mating flies, stingless bees, gall midges, Azteca ants, wasps, bark beetles, mites, spiders, plant parts, and a mammal hair. Perhaps most exciting so far is a new species of pygmy grasshopper, which has just been described in the journal ZooKeys. It turns out that grasshoppers are very rare for amber, and it is even more rare to find them so well preserved.

This species is of particular interest because it represents an intermediate stage in 'hopper evolution; the tiny critter, about the size of a rose thorn, has vestigial wings. Ancient grasshoppers in its sub-family Cladonotinae had wings; its modern cousins do not. The wings on the preserved bug were probably remnants of earlier structures and no longer functional as wings.

Heads named it Electrotettix attenboroughi. The genus is a combination of electrum (Latin for "amber") and tettix (Greek for "grasshopper"). Despite the obvious Jurassic Park reference, the species is named for Sir David Attenborough, everyone's famous British narrator of wildlife documentaries, not for his brother Richard, who played John Hammond in the movie.

As a result, David Attenborough agreed to narrate a short video about the collection and discovery:

When their work is completed, researchers at the Illinois Natural History Survey at the University of Illinois will have what they say is the largest Dominican amber fossil collection in the world; a snapshot of ancient tropical life unprecedented in scope.

[Zookeys; University of Illinois]

Header image and video by Kaitlin and Kevin Southworth, used with permission. Sanderson photo via the Sanderson family, used with permission.