The Strangest Amber Fossils Ever Discovered

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

A spider pouncing on a parasitic wasp that had it coming. (Image: OSU College of Science)

Amber fossils are like a time capsule, preserving the three-dimensional structure of animals, plants, and other prehistoric items of interest. Every once in a while, however, paleontologists stumble upon some particularly bizarre specimens and scenes.

Conventional fossils, with their faintly outlined pancaked specimens, can teach us plenty about the past, but they lack a certain pizzazz. Amber fossils, on the other hand, are filled with all sorts of excitement, exhibiting features that still appear fresh despite being millions of years old. And because many creatures became preserved in amber by inadvertently getting caught in tree resin, their final behaviours and predicaments are often on full display.

Here are some of the more unusual amber fossils discovered over the years.

Ancient Flies Caught in the Bone Zone

Mating flies found in 41-million-year-old amber. (Image: Jeffrey Stillwell)

Some 41 million years ago, during the Late Middle Eocene, a pair of long-legged flies (Dolichopodidae) were getting it on when a drop of tree resin ruined their fun. Paleontologists believe it’s the first example of “frozen behaviour” in the Australian fossil record, as most amber fossils are found in the Northern Hemisphere.

The Ugliest (or Cutest?) Bug Ever Found Trapped in Amber

The unsightly bug, Aethiocarenus burmanicus. (Image: George Poinar, Jr.)

In 2017, scientists described a new species of insect called Aethiocarenus burmanicus, which was found in 100-million-year-old Burmese amber. The Cretaceous critter exhibited features never seen before in an insect, such as a triangle-shaped head, an awkward pair of googly eyes, and glands on its neck. Though the paleontologists who studied the specimen never admitted it, they had stumbled upon one seriously butt-ugly bug.

Say Hello to Mould Pigs

A mould pig in amber, seen through a microscope. (Image: G. Poinar et al., 2019)

Amber can also preserve micro-scale creatures, such as these bizarre mould pigs. Discovered just last year, these tiny animals resemble tardigrades, which are sometimes referred to as water bears. The Cenozoic microinvertebrates were found in the Dominican Republic and dated at 30 million years old. The creatures were named mould pigs on account of their portly appearance and fungi-rich diet.

Double Jeopardy for a Tick Wrapped in Spider Silk

Top and bottom views of the encased tick. (Image: J. A. Dunlop et al., 2018/Cretaceous Research)

On one fateful Cretaceous day, a hapless tick managed to get itself caught in some spider silk prior to getting stuck in a sticky drop of tree sap. A seriously unfortunate day for the tick, but the discovery marked “the first time that this specific interaction between ticks and spiders has been documented in the fossil record,” according to the researchers.

Lice-Like Bugs Crawling Through Dinosaur Feathers

Mesophthirus engeli crawling on dinosaur feathers. (Image: Taiping Gao)

Research from last year detailed a piece of amber containing dino feathers and a louse-like insect named Mesophthirus engeli. Tell-tale damage to feathers suggests the bugs were in fact parasitizing their host, not just hanging out among discarded feathers in the same plop of tree resin. This piece of amber was found in Myanmar and dates back some 100 million years.

Horny Damselfly Strikes a Sexy Pose for Eternity

The male damselfly featured pod-like forearms and hindlegs which it used to attract mates (Image: D. Zheng et al., 2017)

This male damselfly, caught inside 100-million-year-old Burmese amber, was trying to court a female when nature had other plans. At his moment of death, the damselfly had assumed a special pose in which he could show off his exaggerated forearms and hindlegs, in what the scientists called an extreme example of sexual display.

A Very Erect Penis

Top: The daddy longlegs with penis identified. Below: Close-up of the fully erect penis. (Image: J. A. Dunlop et al., 2016)

Daddy longlegs, in addition to their extended appendages, are endowed in other ways as well, as this chunk of Cretaceous amber revealed back in 2016. Here’s how I described the discovery at the time:

When it died, this ancient creature was clearly in a state of arousal, and possibly in the vicinity of a female. How it went from a potential union to paleontological posterity is anyone’s guess. Perhaps it fell into oozing resin amid all the sexual excitement. Alternately, the male daddy longlegs may have accidentally fallen into some tree resin as it was going about its daily business, and as it was struggling, its blood pressure rose, forcing its penis to squeeze out accidentally.

This insect’s penis was so unique in terms of its shape, scientists had to create an entirely new family of arachnids, and a new species, Halitherses grimaldii. As the researchers wrote: “This is the first record of a male copulatory organ of this nature preserved in amber and is of special importance due to the age of the deposit,” which dates back some 99 million years.

Meal Interrupted: An Ancient Spider Tries to Eat a Wasp

A spider pouncing on a parasitic wasp that had it coming. (Image: OSU College of Science)

This is one of my favourite amber fossils, both because of the dramatic scene and the exquisite level of preservation. What a moment for the resin to suddenly pour down over the pair, as the spider was about to chomp down on the parasitic wasp, which may have been poaching spider eggs at the time (oof). This piece of amber — the first to document a spider attack — was found in Myanmar, and it dates back to the Late Cretaceous, between 97 million and 110 million years ago.

Mite-on-Ant Action

The mite firmly attached to the ant's head. (Image: Jason Dunlop/Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin)

Dating back about 44 million to 49 million years ago, this is the oldest example of a mite attached to its host. The mite is similar to those around today, leading scientists to believe it was parasitizing the ant, rather than attacking it.

A Tiny Dino That’s Actually a Lizard

A preserved skull in 99-million-year-old Burmese amber. (Image: Lida Xing)

This remarkable amber fossil was originally thought to contain the smallest dinosaur in the fossil record (a kind of hummingbird-like creature), but a reassessment of the fossil, along with newfound evidence, forced a re-think, with scientists concluding that the tiny skull likely belonged to a lizard. Still, it’s a damned cool specimen.