Trapped in Amber | Natural History Museum of Los Angeles

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Trapped in Amber

A donation to the Entomology Department holds 50-million-year-old secrets

“It’s like looking into a time machine,” says Entomology Curator Brian Brown. He squints at a small fly suspended in a strawberry-sized piece of amber. He turns it over in his hands, scrutinizing each side. “They are preserved almost perfectly.”

He selects another piece -- this one raw, unpolished. It’s surface is rough, opaque, and nearly unrecognizable. “Who knows what’s in there?” he wonders with excitement.

Brown named a species of phorid fly, Hypocera oschini, found in Baltic amber after Michael Oschin.

Brown sifts through a generous donation of amber from Nancy Oschin in memory of her late husband Michael Oschin (1940-2014), who had a lifelong fascination with amber and its contents. The Oschin family has been very generous to the Museum over the years, including a significant gift to name the Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Oschin and Family Hall of African Mammals. The Oschin amber donation, which fills two 5-gallon bright orange buckets, nearly doubles the Museum’s amber collection.

Oschin’s collection is 50-million-year-old Baltic amber, from the largest known amber deposit in the world, likely excavated in Kaliningrad, Russia. (Another large amber deposit in Myanmar has 99-million-year-old Burmese amber.) These chunks of fossilized tree resin, some as big as an apricot, hold tantalizing secrets inside their honey-colored matrix. A cursory search of just a few pieces yields several finds: a wasp, a spider, several flies. These and other ancient insects and arachnids float, frozen in time and space, among debris trapped along with them so many years ago.

A yet-to-be described species of fly preserved in amber.

After oozing from a tree, tree resin only forms amber if it’s buried in sediment and protected from oxygen, usually under an ocean, for millions of years. Technically a gemstone, a large piece of it feels light in your hand. Its density is so low it can actually float in very salty water —  unusual behavior for something that looks like a rock. The oldest amber is about 320 million years old — any earlier than that and there weren’t many trees producing resin in the first place. The youngest known amber deposits are about 20 million years old.

Unlike nearly every other specimen in the Museum’s collections, amber is best maintained when handled often. Exposure to light and oxygen slowly degrades it, but the skin oils handlers leave on its surface offer protection from the elements. For the same reason, experts advise people fond of their amber jewelry to wear it often.

This diamond saw donated my Michael Oschin is perfect for cutting pieces of amber without breaking them.

Untold hours of work lie ahead for the team in the Entomology Department. The amber shards must be sorted, sanded, and cut. They use a diamond saw — donated by the same Michael Oschin — to trim these gems down without cracking them. To slice through even a small piece takes upwards of five minutes. The metal wheel encrusted with diamonds spins slowly, gradually grinding its way through the material. But with a smooth window into the amber, it can reveal its secrets to the researchers peering at it through a microscope.

“I’m excited because any time you look at an unsorted, untouched bunch of amber, there’s always the possibility of discovering something,” said Brown. “No scientist has looked through this yet.”

Entomology Curator Brian Brown examines an amber specimen.

 

 

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