Excavating amber

First amber excavation in the El Soplao outcrop, Cantabria, N Spain in 2008. Credit IGME-UB.

By Dr Ricardo Perez-De-La Fuente, Research Fellow

Amber, or fossilised plant resin, is a unique material to learn about the history of life on Earth. Its incredible preservation and ability to capture life “in action” are well known thanks to the Jurassic Park saga, but fewer people know where amber is found, what it looks like in the field, and how it is gathered.

Cretaceous amber, about 130 to 70 million years old, is the oldest amber that provides abundant fossils, specifically insects and spiders. Ecosystems drastically changed during this period due to global greenhouse conditions and the diversification of flowering plants, among other factors. Amber from that time has been discovered in Lebanon, Spain, France, Myanmar, eastern United States, Canada, and northern Russia.

My research team and I carry out regular amber excavations in northern Spain, working in teams of six to ten people. The outcrops that we excavate are often located next to roads and highways because amber is typically uncovered during roadworks. Excavations take place during the summer or fall to try and minimise the risk of rain, and we usually embark on one field trip each year.

The goal is to recover as much amber as possible – usually a few kilograms – from the muddy and sandy sediments. These materials were transported downstream tens of million of years ago by heavy rain and river swellings from the forests where the resin was produced, before being finally deposited in near-shore areas.

Manual extraction of amber. Credit IGME-UB
Manual extraction of amber in the El Soplao outcrop, Cantabria, northern Spain in 2008. Credit: IGME/UB.

I find amber excavations quite romantic. In the field, amber has a dull appearance that makes it difficult to distinguish from rocks or woody remains. This is due to an opaque crust resulting from oxidation in the sediments and other processes.

This outer layer makes detecting potential fossils inside the amber highly unlikely while the excavation is ongoing. So, in the field we just gather as many amber pieces as possible, and hope for the best.

Only when amber is polished – or shows broken surfaces – does its distinct yellowish to reddish shine emerge, and any possible fossils within become evident. Some ambers are highly fossiliferous, while others are very poor in fossils.

Amber can be gathered by hand using regular tools such as hammers. However, the most efficient method to extract amber from soft sediments is with concrete mixers! This rather unsophisticated piece of equipment provides the best way to recover medium quantities of amber in the field.

We charge water and amber-bearing sediments into the mixer, and after stirring for a while amber floats to the top because it is less dense than muddy water. Then, the surface of the water containing the amber is poured into sieves, which separates even the tiniest pieces.

Amber pieces recovered in a sieve after washing
Amber pieces recovered in a sieve after having been “washed” from their sediment. First amber excavation in the La Manjoya outcrop, Asturias, northern Spain in 2017.

After fieldwork, many hours will be spent looking for fossils within the amber and preparing them. Gathering raw amber is just the first part of a process in unearthing the secrets held within – fragments of encapsulated time.

Top image: First amber excavation in the El Soplao outcrop, Cantabria, N Spain in 2008. Credit: IGME/UB.

A grasp of the past

by Ricardo Perez-De-La Fuente, research fellow

Few creatures look weirder – or are cooler, in my opinion – than mantidflies. There are around 400 species of these small predatory insects known worldwide – a scarce diversity by insect standards.

Like praying mantises, mantidflies have long ‘necks’ and forelegs armed with powerful spines and other structures used to hunt their prey with a sudden lethal grasp. The unfortunate victims become immobilised until they are meticulously eaten alive – not the best way to spend your last minutes on Earth!

Mantidflies belong to the Neuroptera order of insects and so aren’t actually related to praying mantises, but to insects such as lacewings and antlions.

A new paper that a colleague and I have published presents a new fossil mantidfly from Spanish amber that is important in understanding the evolution of their gripping – or raptorial – forelegs. The finding is presented in the open access journal Scientific Reports today.

Although the discovery has just been published, we excavated the new fossil during the scorching summer of 2010 in Teruel, northeastern Spain.

Amber excavations are very romantic – while they take place we carefully store the amber, piece by piece, into muddy plastic bags, remaining oblivious of what creatures are being unearthed because the amber surfaces have become opaque during fossilisation. Later, in the laboratory, the surfaces of the amber pieces are polished and screened for inclusions. Then a first glimpse is gained into what has remained frozen in time for millions of years.

It is only when the amber inclusions are carefully examined and studied that the implications of the specimens that were dug up years earlier start to be revealed. In this case, a specimen that was preserved in fragments, nothing spectacular at first look, ended up being truly exceptional.

Foreleg of Aragomantispa lacerata, showing powerful spines and other structures adapted to strike and hold prey.

Extinct true mantidflies, particularly those preserved in amber, are extremely rare. Our new fossil, pictured above at the top of the article, is 105 million years old, from the Cretaceous period. It currently stands as the oldest true mantidfly known in amber. The new extinct species, named Aragomantispa lacerata, has allowed us to compare the structures of the raptorial forelegs between extinct and extant mantidflies with an unprecedented detail.

Comparison between the foreleg spine-like structures of the new fossil mantidfly (up), with those from a close modern species (bottom).

Present-day mantidflies have forelegs with spines that bear minute cones at their tip. These cones are sensory organs that elicit the striking reflex and feel the prey’s movements once captured and restrained by the mantidfly’s tight embrace.

The forelegs of Aragomantispa lack these cones at the spines’ tip, instead having larger, icicle-shaped tips. We do not know how sensitive the mantidfly forelegs were in the Cretaceous, but the spines of at least some of these insects seem to be not as specialised as those from their present-day relatives.

Some mantidflies have smaller, reclined hair-like structures forming an edge on the leg’s surface opposing the spines. These reinforced edges create a scissor effect that stuns prey when the forelegs strike. Although Aragomatispa has these structures on the forelegs, they are also different in shape to those found on extant mantidflies.

Reconstruction of Aragomantispa lacerata striking at a hypothetical prey on a fern in the Cretaceous Spanish forest.

The fossil record offers the only direct means to assess when and how the traits characteristic of a given animal group originated in time. However, this kind of fossil evidence appears very occasionally. Our discovery shows that the foreleg spine-like structures of recent mantidflies were not fully developed in at least some of their Cretaceous ancestors.

The most exciting part is to think that this story and literally thousands more lie waiting to be discovered – or otherwise forgotten forever – buried underground.

Bursting into life

By Ricardo Pérez-de la Fuente, Museum Research Fellow

One of the earliest and toughest trials that all organisms face is birth. In egg-laying animals, the egg shell that has protected the embryo during its early development ultimately becomes a hard barrier between the animal and its life out in the world. The bursting of the egg is literally a threshold moment, and there are many ways to crack an egg…

Some animals break the egg membranes using dissolving chemicals; others physically, mechanically tear their way through the shells. Among the latter, a great diversity of animals use specialised devices called egg bursters. These vary greatly among the many arthropods and vertebrates that use them, but perhaps the most famous example is the ‘egg tooth’ that is present on the beak of newborn chicks.

Four complete Tragychrysa ovoruptora newborns preserved together with egg shell remains and one egg burster. Modified from the open access Palaeontology paper.

My colleagues and I have found an exceptional fossil in 130 million-year-old Lebanese amber. Inside, trapped together are newborn larvae from Green Lacewings, the split egg shells from where they hatched, and the minute egg bursters that the hatchlings used to crack the egg. This is a first: no definitive evidence of these specialised egg-bursting structures had been reported from the fossil record of any egg-laying animals, until now.

The finding has been recently published as open access in the journal Palaeontology. Because multiple newborns were ensnared and entombed in the resin simultaneously, the fossil larvae have been described as the new species Tragichrysa ovoruptora, meaning ‘tragic green lacewing’ and ‘egg breaking’. A sad event, indeed, taking place in an ordinary day 130 million years ago in the Cretaceous forests of Lebanon, yet a happy circumstance now that we can take a privileged glimpse into the adaptations and behaviours of these fascinating tiny creatures.

The hatchlings from modern Green Lacewings open a slit on the egg with a ‘mask’ bearing a saw-like blade. Once used, this ‘mask’ is shed together with the embryonic cuticle and is left attached to the empty egg shell.

With the help of Amoret Spooner, Collections Manager at the Museum, egg clutches from modern green lacewings were found in the Museum collections. These eggs happened to have the intact egg bursters still attached to them, and proved to be crucial to understand that we had the same structures preserved in the amber together with the newborn larvae.

Two Tragychrysa ovoruptora newborns preserved together with egg shell remains and two visible egg bursters (right inset). Modified from the open access Palaeontology paper.

Green Lacewing larvae are small predators that often carry debris as camouflage, using their sickle-shaped jaws to pierce and suck the fluids of their prey. Whereas the larvae trapped in amber differ significantly from modern-day relatives, in that they possess long tubes instead of clubs or bumps for holding debris, the studied egg shells and egg bursters are remarkably similar to those of today’s green lacewings.

The larvae were almost certainly trapped by resin while clutching the eggs from which they had freshly emerged. Such behaviour is common among modern relatives while their body hardens and their predatory jaws become functional. Indeed, the two mouthparts forming the jaws are not assembled in most of the fossil larvae, which indicates, together with the large relative size of the head and legs, that they were recently born.

Detail of a head with the jaws still dislodged, indicating that the larva was recently hatched when it was ensnared by amber and the jaws had not yet had time to fully assemble.

It may seem reasonable to assume that traits controlling a life event as decisive as hatching would have remained largely unchanged during evolution. In fact, we see in very closely related insect groups different means of hatching that can entail the loss of the egg bursters. So the persistence of a hatching mechanism in a given animal lineage through deep time can’t be determined without direct proof from the fossil record.

Reconstruction of two Tragichrysa ovoruptora newborns clutching the eggs from where they recently hatched, moments before they were trapped by resin. Larvae colour and egg stalks are conjectural. Extracted from the open access Palaeontology paper.

This new discovery shows that the mechanism green lacewings use to crack the egg was already established 130 million years ago. Overall, it represents the first direct evidence of how insects hatched in deep time, egg-bursting their way through into life.


The hatching mechanism of 130-million-year-old insects: an association of neonates, egg shells and egg bursters in Lebanese amber by Ricardo Pérez-de la Fuente, Michael S. Engel, Dany Azar and Enrique Peñalver is published as open access in Palaeontology this month.

Crafty camouflage

Last week we brought you snails that attach all manner of pebbles, fossils, corals and shark teeth to their shells. Today we give you a newly-discovered fossil green lacewing larva that attached pieces of soil to its body as an act of camouflage. Our research fellow Ricardo Pérez-de la Fuente, lead author of the new paper, explains…

Visual camouflage is one of the most successful survival strategies in nature. Camouflaging is usually defensive, allowing animals to be left unnoticed by their predators, but it can also be used aggressively by predators themselves to approach their prey undetected.

Some camouflaging animals can actively change their colouring to match that of the background ‒ a technique called crypsis. Others can make their bodies resemble elements of the environment, such as leaves or twigs, which is called mimicry.

Italochrysa italica, an extant green lacewing larva carrying a dense debris packet made of soil fragments. Taken from the open access publication Tauber & Winterton, 2014.

Yet another approach to camouflage involves collecting diverse materials from the environment and incorporating them on the animals’ bodies in order to better blend with the surroundings. This is known as debris-carrying, trash-carrying, or decoration, and it can be found across a wide variety of animals including sea urchins, gastropods, and arthropods, such as decorating crabs, or sand- and mud-covering spiders.

My colleagues and I have just published the discovery of a fossil green lacewing larva, pictured at the top of the article, that has been preserved carrying bits of soil that it used for camouflage and physical protection. It’s a new larval species just 1.5 mm in length, and is preserved in Early Cretaceous Lebanese amber. We have named it Tyruschrysa melqart after the Phoenician city of Tyre and its tutelary god Milk-Qart (if you want to learn the reasons behind this name check out our open access paper!).

Interpretative drawing of Tyruschrysa melqart: body in grey, ‘tubes’ with setae coloured according to which body part they are attached to, and soil debris in brown.

Green lacewing larvae are active predators that eat other insects such as aphids, using sickle-shaped ‘jaws’ to pierce their prey, suck out their fluids and liquefy their tissues; eating is easier when there is no need to chew! Some green lacewing larvae are debris carriers, entangling all kinds of debris among their velcro-like ‘hairs’ called setae, which extend from relatively short ‘bumps’ on their backs. This debris is carefully selected and gathered with meticulous head and body movements to form a so-called debris packet on the back of the insect.

‘Tubes’ bearing setae of Tyruschrysa melqart, with detail of their mushroom-shaped endings (bottom), used for anchoring bits of soil.

The new fossil and similar ones described from younger Cretaceous ambers differ from modern relatives because instead of short ‘bumps’ with setae on their backs they have relatively long ‘tubes’, giving them a bizarre appearance.

These tubes have setae with mushroom-shaped endings of a kind never seen before in extinct or living green lacewing larva species. The mushroom-shaped ending is a special adaptation to anchor debris, which in the case of Tyruschrysa melqart are fragments of soil.

Hallucinochrysa diogenesi, another Cretaceous green lacewing larva bearing long ‘tubes’ with setae on its back, but carrying a debris packet made of plant hairs (trichomes). Preserved in Spanish amber (105 million years old).

It was already known that Cretaceous green lacewing larvae like Tyruschrysa had long tubes on their backs and that they collected plant hairs and other plant material to construct their packet of debris. But thanks to the new discovery we now know that these immature insects also used bits of soil, and that in the deep past debris packets were probably as diverse as those we see today.

Green lacewing larvae have been gathering debris to camouflage and protect themselves for about 130 million years, giving rise to the different body adaptations we see amongst these fascinating tiny collectors.

‘A soil-carrying lacewing larva in Early Cretaceous Lebanese amber’ Ricardo Pérez-de la Fuente, Enrique Peñalver, Dany Azar and Michael S. Engel is published as open access in Scientific Reports this month.

Bound by blood

It may sound like we’ve stumbled into a script-writing session for Jurassic Park, but one of our research fellows, Dr Ricardo Pérez-de la Fuente, along with an international team, has discovered a parasite trapped in amber, clutching the feather of a dinosaur. This small fossilised tick, along with a few other specimens, is the first direct evidence that ticks sucked the blood of feathered dinosaurs 100 million years ago. Ricardo tells us all about it…

The paper that my colleagues and I have just published provides evidence that ticks fed from feathered dinosaurs about 100 million years ago, during the mid-Cretaceous period. It is based on evidence from amber fossils, including that of a hard tick grasping a dinosaur feather preserved in 99 million-year-old Burmese amber.

Fluorescence detail of the studied hard tick grasping a dinosaur feather. Extracted from the publication.

The probability of the tick and feather becoming so tightly associated and co-preserved in resin by chance is virtually zero, which means the discovery is the first direct evidence of a parasite-host relationship between ticks and feathered dinosaurs.

Fossils of parasitic, blood-feeding creatures directly associated with remains of their host are exceedingly scarce, and this new specimen is the oldest known to date. The tick is an immature specimen of Cornupalpatum burmanicum; look closely under the microscope and you can see tiny teeth in the mouthparts that are used to create a hole and fix to the host’s skin to suck its blood.

The structure of the feather inside the amber is similar to modern-day bird feathers, but it could not belong to a modern bird because, according to current evidence at least, they did not appear until 26 million years later than the age of the amber.

Feathers with the same characteristics were already present in multiple forms of theropod dinosaurs –  the lineage of dinosaurs leading to modern birds – from ground-runners without flying ability, to bird-like forms capable of powered flight. Unfortunately, this means it is not possible to determine exactly which kind of feathered dinosaur the amber feather belonged to.

But there is more evidence of the dinosaur-tick relationship in the scientific paper. We also describe a new group of extinct ticks, created from a species we have named Deinocroton draculi, or “Dracula’s terrible tick”. These novel ticks, in the family Deinocrotonidae, are distinguished from other ticks by the structure of their body surface, palps and legs, and the position of their head, among other characteristics.

Blood-engorged Deinocroton draculi tick (female). Extracted from the publication.

This new species was also found sealed inside Burmese amber, with one specimen remarkably engorged with blood, increasing its volume approximately eight times over non-engorged forms. Despite this, it has not been possible to directly determine its host animal:

Assessing the composition of the blood meal inside the bloated tick is not feasible because, unfortunately, the tick did not become fully immersed in resin and so its contents were altered by mineral deposition.
Dr Xavier Delclòs, an author of the study from the University of Barcelona and IRBio.

But there was indirect evidence of the likely host for these novel ticks in the form of hair-like structures called setae from the larvae of skin beetles, or dermestids, found attached to two Deinocroton ticks preserved together. Today, skin beetles feed in nests, consuming feathers, skin and hair from the nest’s occupants. But as no mammal hairs have yet been found in Cretaceous amber, the presence of skin beetle setae on the two Deinocroton draculi ticks suggests that their host was in fact a feathered dinosaur.

The hair-like structures, or setae, from skin beetles (dermestids) found attached to two Deinocroton ticks fossilised inside amber, in comparison with extant ones. Modified from the publication.

Together, these findings tell us a fascinating story about ancient tick behaviour. They reveal some of the ecological interactions taking place among early ticks and birds, showing that their parasite-host relationship has lasted for at least 99 million years: an enduring connection, bound by blood.

The paper “Ticks parasitised feathered dinosaurs as revealed by Cretaceous amber assemblages” is published as open access in Nature Communications. Direct link: http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/s41467-017-01550-z

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.