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Amber Raines [VERIFIED]

It has long been known that resin has preservative and antibiotic properties, for it has been used in food preservatives, in medicines, and in winemaking since ancient times. Despite great recent advances in chemistry we still do not understand exactly how amber does its magic trick of preserving things so wonderfully. This is because amber is a cocktail of chemicals, including alcohols, sugars, esters, and terpenes whose complexity defies ready analysis. Somehow the brew withdraws water from whatever it engulfs, then fixes the dehydrated tissues and excludes bacteria. To top it all off it hardens when fossilized to a brilliant, transparent, gemlike material.

amber raines


The authors of The Amber Forest inform us that Jurassic Park is still in the realms of fantasy, for even the DNA from animals preserved in amber is badly degraded, fragmented, and strongly cross-linked with other molecules in the cell. Yet we can still hope that one day the very improbability that the remarkable properties of amber exist at all will be matched by the creation of a real rather than virtual Jurassic Park.

The oldest fossils preserved in amber are plant fragments from southern Scotland that are thought to be around 300 million years old. The fossils that form the subject of The Amber Forest, however, are from the Caribbean and are between 15 and 45 million years in age. Today Dominican amber is mined predominantly in the high northern range of the island known as the Cordillera Septentrional. There, miners equipped only with a hammer, chisel, candle, and sack push deep into the steep hillsides, following the deposits for up to six hundred feet, where they work in tunnels so narrow that they have to crawl to the amber-bearing rockface.

The sight of so many splendid amber fossils left me with a longing to know in a more intimate way what the world that they inhabited might have been like. The Poinars make an attempt to reconstruct the ecology of the ancient forest, but ultimately they fail to provide, for me at least, a sense of what it might have been like to wander in those ancient groves. For that we must turn to other sources, in particular the works of early travelers who ventured into the wilderness where the descendants of the algarrobo tree still grow.

The eggs of strepsipterans hatch inside the female, and the young wait inside a special brood pouch for the right moment to emerge. Then, as if at a signal, they pour out and begin searching for a plant hopper of their own to parasitize. They enter through the body wall, and doubtless do not use an anesthetic. One young strepsipteran was preserved in amber at the moment it emerged from its host.

Among the insects preserved in amber that are now absent from Hispaniola but may still be found in Central and South America are all seven of the bee species recorded from the deposits. This is quite remarkable, for few if any of the myriad wasp families represented fall into the same category. Why should bees be vulnerable to extinction on Hispaniola and not the closely related wasps? George and Roberta Poinar pose a number of possible solutions, such as the idea that climatic change affected the trees that the bees fed on, or that the bees were suffering from genetic problems because of their isolation on an island. Somehow these explanations ring hollow; a great and intractable evolutionary mystery still seems to me to be present in this tale of the wasps and the bees.

The fact that Hispaniola is an island, however, may have something to do with the extinction of some of the creatures whose remains are preserved in the amber deposits. And although Hispaniola is in one sense an island, it is also a high mountain range of a now submerged landmass known to geologists as Gaarlandia. The name is derived in part from the name of the isles to which Hispaniola belongs, the Greater Antilles. At the end of the age of dinosaurs, Gaarlandia stretched across the tropical ocean of the Western Hemisphere much as Central America does today, linking North and South America by an extensive land bridge. By 60 million years ago, however, it had moved east and begun to subside below the waves. Since then it has fragmented and subsided further, stranding its inhabitants on ever more distant and smaller isles.

One of the strengths of The Amber Forest is a handsome color section, depicting most of the fossils that are reproduced elsewhere in the book in black and white. Many are truly beautiful as well as informative, for nature imitated art magnificently when she captured a flower stamen releasing a cascade of pollen into the amber trap. Even the reader barely interested in the wonder of lost worlds can hardly fail to be moved by such images. 041b061a72


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