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Amber: Nature's Finest Camera Is Far Better Than a Photo

I used to think that insects and spiders caught up in a tree's syrupy, seeping resin millions of years ago must have been absolutely inept at survival. How, with reflexes that regularly trump flyswatter-wielding humans, could they not avoid such a slow, sticky fate? But now I realize. They were distracted!

In October of last year, paleontologists discovered a piece of fossilized tree resin -- amber -- with a peculiar scene buried inside its golden depths: a spider attacking a parasitic wasp. 100 million years ago, trapped in a gluey web, the wasp lay helpless before the spider. As the arachnid moved in to strike a deadly blow, it completely missed the resin oozing down from above. But the spider's misfortune is our delight. Thanks to nature, the epic struggle -- pitting a pesky parasite against its vengeful host -- became immortalized, gifting us a brief glimpse into ancient times.

608px-2007_01_3000_muchowka_sciaridae.jpgAmber has also afforded us other prehistoric pieces of eye candy. In 2007, scientists found the earliest solid evidence of chemical warfare. A beetle-like insect was in the process of excreting chemical repellants to ward off a large, predatory cockroach when the beetle became engulfed in tree resin. Its cockroach combatant appears to have lucked out, only losing an antenna, instead of its life. Between predation and death by goopy tree juice, it simply was not that beetle's day.

Animal warfare certainly isn't all that's captured in amber. Just last August, two previously unknown species of mites, each 230 million-years-old, were found encased in amber globules high in the Dolomite Alps of northeastern Italy. The findings represented the oldest insects ever discovered in amber.

The coolest amber discovery, however, came a year earlier. Paleontologists recovered a piece of amber with dinosaur feathers inside! The millimeter-sized feathers likely belonged to a member of the theropods, a group of mostly carnivorous dinosaurs which included the Tyrannosaurus rex.

Spider_in_amber_(1).jpgTruly, amber is nature's finest camera, capturing still images of life from an unfathomably distant past. Hardened in anaerobic lake sediments, amber's chemical compounds become inexorably linked to such a degree that even flame won't break them. 

Thanks to amber, we can see hundreds of millions of years into history, a feat that a Polaroid almost certainly couldn't accomplish.

(Images: 1. Sciaridae in amber by Mirella Liszka via Wikimedia Commons  2. Spider in amber by Elisabeth via Wikimedia) Commons)