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What are Amber Fossils?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 21, 2024
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Amber fossils are the remains of ancient organisms trapped in amber, tree resin which has hardened through a process called polymerization. If the tree resin happens to harden in the right environment, it can endure for hundreds or thousands of years, creating a valuable record of organisms which lived in the Earth's past. Also known as fossil resin, amber has also been prized for thousands of years as an ornamental gemstone, though is it not a mineral, and thus not technically a gem.

The formation of amber fossils starts with the secretion of resin. Trees and some plants secrete resin as a protection from insects. Although this sticky secretion is sometimes referred to as sap, it is not in fact a sap, but rather an entirely different substance generated by the plant for protection. As resin moves along the trunk of a tree, it can trap a wide variety of organisms which become ensnared in the amber. When the resin hardens, it can preserve an entire organism, and sometimes even DNA is preserved.

Botanical material such as leaves, twigs, and bark is commonly found in amber, which is not terribly surprising, considering where it comes from. Amber fossils also typically include large numbers of microorganisms, which are ubiquitous in the natural environment, along with insects. In addition to insects, amber has also been known to contain frogs, lizards, and other small animals who simply happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Amber is not really an ideal fossil preservative. Amber fossils are biodegradable, and will break down when exposed to heat, ultraviolet light, and chemicals. This is one reason why people with amber jewelry need to take special care of it, to ensure that the amber is not damaged. Once an amber fossil has been uncovered and disturbed, steps need to be taken to preserve it, or it will eventually disappear. Even with proper care, the amber can eventually break down.

Numerous natural history museums maintain libraries of amber fossils for the purpose of study. These fossils can provide information about the history of life on Earth, with amber fossils comprising one piece of a complex puzzle. These fossils are also useful for learning about where various organisms lived, and what they ate, as sometimes it is possible to recover material from the guts of animals trapped in amber fossils. This material includes microorganisms found in the gut.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All The Science researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By bargal20 — On Nov 22, 2013

If the tree resin happens to harden in the right environment, it can endure for hundreds or thousands of years, creating a valuable record of organisms which lived in the Earth's past.

Try tens of millions of years. Is the author of this article a young earth creationist, or are they just trying to humor creationists?

By FrameMaker — On Jun 18, 2011

@aplenty- I went to the Dominican Republic a few years go and bought an amber pendant with an insect in it. The shopkeeper said the fossilized resin was from outside of Cotui -where I visited-, and that this area produced the best resin specimens in the world. The city of Cotui is a beautiful and historic city -actually the oldest in the New World, dating to 1510- that is well known for its rich mineral deposits and resulting trade.

Cotui resin and the resin in the Dominican Republic in general, are 20 million years old or older. This region often has better quality amber than the Baltic, with fewer air bubbles and larger preserved specimens. The Dominican Republic is also a somewhat accessible area that is friendly to tourism.

There are also large resin deposits in the jungles of Colombia, but accessing these deposits is very dangerous. The area where these deposits are in very rural, cartel friendly areas that foreigners are strongly advised to avoid. The deposits are actually hard to find too, so you will probably find a gun wielding cartel member easier than you will find a resin specimen. Colombia is beautiful, but it is not the place for fossil prospecting.

By PelesTears — On Jun 16, 2011

@aplenty- I do not think there are any amber quarries in the United States that are significant enough to produce regular specimens of fossilized resin. That does not mean that there is no amber in the States though because fossilized amber can be found anywhere. The best places to look are places where there were once prehistoric rainforests.

The amber from the Baltic is not the best quality amber, but it is the easiest to access, especially for amateur rockhounds and fossil hunters. From what I have heard, you can find exposed amber all along the banks of the Baltic Sea where the rock strata have been eroded away over tie. Baltic Amber is mined in Kaliningrad Russia and sold across the globe to be made into amber pendants, beads and necklaces. Baltic amber can also be found in Lithuania, Poland, Estonia, and occasionally washed on the shores of Denmark and Norway. If you ever vacation in any of these places, it might be worthwhile to take a look.

By GiraffeEars — On Jun 15, 2011

I remember seeing a collection of Baltic Amber at the New York Museum of Natural History when I took my cross country road trip. The museum had a nice collection of specimens that had a number of large insects and even a frog fossilized in Amber resin. From that trip, I learned that you could find fossilized resin in the Baltic region. I also know that you can find fossilized amber in any continent on the planet, including Antarctica.

I do not know of any amber resin locations in the United States, but plenty of rock and lapidary shops that sell amber specimens to the public. They will sell these specimens as cut and polished pieces that are set in rings and pendants. Buying it is not the same as finding it, but it would be a neat artifact to add to a collection. Maybe someone else knows a little more about fossilized amber than I do.

By aplenty — On Jun 13, 2011

I am an aspiring rock hound (I needed an outdoor hobby when I moved to Utah) and I have recently found I have a passion for finding fossils. It is so cool to be able to look back in time and find the fossilized remains of prehistoric creatures. What I think would be even better would be to find a fossilized amber piece with an insect or small amphibian caught inside. I know they are rare, but are there any good amber beds in the United States? What about good amber sites in other parts of the world? I would appreciate any insight into this subject.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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