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Science
AMBER
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Discovering the lost world of the amber forests.
Wednesday 16 February 2005 9.00-9.30pm

Howard Stableford embarks on a wonderful detective story following the clues which lead him to the lost world of the amber forests.

insect  in amber
Insects trapped inside an amber pendant (courtesy of The Natural History Museum, London).

Millions of years ago, a forest flourished in the Dominican Republic. One of the species of tree exuded copious amounts of resin which acted as a sticky trap, capturing and holding small insects and other animal and plant debris. The resin hardened and over thousands of years a process of fossilization took place.

In this programme, Howard joins the “amber detectives”, the scientists for whom the study of amber has been a lifelong passion. By examining the clues trapped in the amber, Howard gains a remarkable insight into how life in the ancient forests would have looked, smelled and even sounded like!

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Howard anmd David looking at amber
Howard Stableford and David Grimaldi examine a piece of amber at the Museum of Natural History in New York.

Amber occurs in many parts of the world. Most of the amber which is used in the commercial production of jewellery comes from the Baltic region or the Dominican republic. The oldest recorded amber comes from the Upper Carboniferous (approx. 300 million years ago). The oldest know amber containing insects comes from the Lower Cretaceous (approx. 146 million yeas ago).

The plant and insects inclusions preserved in Baltic amber indicate that it was produced in a subtropical forest with a mixture of trees. Dominican amber inclusions indicate that it was formed in a tropical forest.
Caterpillar in amber
Insects are perfectly preserved in amber; you can even see fine hairs in this specimen. (courtesy of George Poinar)

Throughout the programme, we hear abridged extracts from "The Amber Forest", written by amber experts George and Roberta Poinar, which is a fascinating reconstruction of a vanished world the Dominican amber forest. When Howard meets George Poinar, (Courtesy Professor at Oregon State University) he gets the chance to examine a beautiful jumping spider trapped in a piece of amber under a microscope.

Howard also meets David Grimaldi, Curator of Invertebrate Zoology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. David shows Howard some amazing examples of amber inclusions including a tiny skeleton of a lizard which died on the surface of a resin flow, decayed, and then was covered by more resin, so the skeleton is beautifully preserved.

Last, but by no means least of our three amber detectives is Andrew Ross, Curator of Fossil Arthropods at The Natural History Museum in London. Like the two other “amber detectives”, Andrew has spent many years studying the fossil inclusions and trying to get an insight into life in the ancient amber forests.
George Poinar examines a piece of amber
George Poinar examines a piece of amber for insect inclusions. 

Amber  is a fascinating detective story and a wonderful and evocative journey through time, as the programme captures in sound, the lost world of the amber forests which existed millions of years ago.

The wildlife sound recordist was Chris Watson.


For further information:

The Amber Forest: A Reconstruction of a Vanished World
By George Poinar JR. and Roberta Poinar,
published by Princeton University Press, 1999
ISBN: 0-691-02888-5

Amber: Window to the Past
By David Grimaldi
Harry N Abrams / American Museum of Natural History, 1996
ISBN: 0-8109-1966-6

Amber: The Natural Time Capsule
By Andrew Ross
Published by The Natural History Museum, London and Goldmajor Ltd
ISBN: 0-565-09131-X

Life in Amber
By George O. Poinar Jr.
Published by Stanford University Press (1992)
ISBN:0-804-72001-0

The Quest for Life in Amber
By George O.Poinar and Roberta Poinar (1994)
Published by Addison Wesley
ISBN: 0-201-62660-8

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