Amber time capsules

New Museum Research Fellow Dr. Ricardo Pérez-de la Fuente talks about his fascinating work with a special collection at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University, and what he’ll be getting up to at the Museum of Natural History. 

Amber, fossilised resin, has fascinated humanity since prehistoric times due to its mesmerising colour, shine, and fragrance when burned. From a scientific viewpoint however, what makes amber unique is the ability that the resin has to capture small portions of the ecosystem and the organisms living within almost instantaneously, in an unaltered way, preserving them for tens of millions of years. This has an unmatched fidelity among the fossiliferous materials.

Holotype of Fibla carpenteri Engel, 1995, a snake-fly. Credit: President and Fellows of Harvard College.

During a four-year postdoctoral fellowship at the Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ) at Harvard University, I had the chance to curate, identify and digitise one of the premier fossil insect collections worldwide. It holds about 50,000–60,000 specimens, including around 10,000 amber inclusions. One of the unexpected outcomes of my time there was helping to rediscover a forgotten loan of about 400 Baltic amber samples that had been brought to the MCZ from the University of Königsberg during the 1930’s.  This loan ended up sparing the specimens from being destroyed during the bombardment of the city of Königsberg (renamed Kaliningrad thereafter) in World War Two. The full-story as showcased by the Harvard Gazette can be found here.

Holotype of Lagynodes electriphilus Brues, 1940, a megaspilid wasp. Credit: President and Fellows of Harvard College.

As a researcher specialising in fossil arthropods, one of the most remarkable challenges for me during the digitisation project at the MCZ was to overcome the thrill to learn more about the specimens that we were imaging. In what way were they different from their modern relatives? Were they perhaps new to science? What information were they providing from the ecosystem in which they lived? At present, I can fully embrace these questions and many more thanks to becoming a Museum Research Fellow at the Museum of Natural History.

Cotype of Hypoponera atavia (Mayr, 1868), an ant. Credit: President and Fellows of Harvard College.

My research at the museum focuses on studying interactions between organisms in deep time and their behaviours, particularly in Cretaceous amber, such as plant-insect pollination relationships around 100 million years ago. During that time, a major shift was taking place in terrestrial ecosystems due to the diversification of angiosperms (flowering plants), which ended up replacing gymnosperms (non-flowering plants) as the dominant flora. There was also the appearance of key groups of organisms from the ecological perspective — ants and bees in the case of insects, for instance.

It is a well-accepted fact that preservation in amber is biased towards small organisms because the larger ones tend to escape the sticky resin more easily. But how easy it is for one to get lost in amber when examining its secrets and trying to unravel its mysteries! Becoming forever trapped within.

Some of the most remarkable Baltic amber specimens (about 40 million years old) returned to the Königsberg collection from the MCZ. Pictures: RPF. Credit: President and Fellows of Harvard College.

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