Frozen in time, 50 million years ago

A treasure trove of prehistoric insects preserved in amber has been found in India. Steve Connor takes a peek into the past

A collection of beautifully preserved bees, ants, spiders and other small prehistoric creatures that lived 50 million years ago have been unearthed in a huge amber deposit in India.

Scientists said that the fossilised globules of tree resin have entombed a spectacular menagerie of insects that had survived the extinction of the dinosaurs and were living at a time before mammals had evolved.

The amber deposit is the first to be found in India and may be larger than the Baltic deposits – in Russia, Poland, Ukraine and Germany – which are the biggest in the world and have proved a rich source of the semi-precious gemstone for more than 200 years.

Amber forms when the soft, sticky sap of trees solidifies into hard lumps of resin which, when buried, become fossilised into a substance valued for its colour, translucence and natural organic beauty. The resin produced by the trees has antiseptic properties to protect the plant against attack from fungi and bacteria, a feature which also helps to preserve any insects or small animals that become trapped in the soft resin before it solidifies.

The new deposits, which the scientists have likened to a huge cache of herbal cough drops, were found in the open-cast coal mines of the Cambay region of north-west India.

The researchers said that an analysis of the amber shows that it was formed from the resin of a family of tropical hardwood trees that still exist in south-east Asia.

Insects found in Baltic amber are often empty shells because their inner, soft parts have dissolved away. However, scientists have found that the Indian amber preserves the insects intact, allowing the researchers to study them whole in fine detail.

"We are able to dissolve the amber and get the specimens completely out," said Professor Jes Rust of Bonn University in Germany, who led the team.

"This is really outstanding. It's like getting a complete dinosaur out of the amber and being able to put it under the microscope," Professor Rust said.

The story of a prehistoric mosquito that had just dined on the blood of a dinosaur before being trapped in tree resin formed part of the 1993 film Jurassic Park, based on the book of the same name by Michael Crichton, where dinosaur DNA is recovered from the insect and used to bring the giant creatures back to life. However, Professor Rust said that the possibility of getting any genetic material from the insects trapped in the Indian amber is next to zero.

"You will never find ancient DNA in amber. It is completely destroyed and deteriorates after a couple of hundred thousand years. Jurassic Park is wonderful science fiction," he said.

Nevertheless, the scientists have already found more than 700 specimens trapped in the Indian amber. They are mostly insects, such as ants, bees and termites, but they also include spiders, mites and parts of plants. One species of ant belongs to a genus that is only found alive today in Australia.

Dating of the coal seams where the amber was recovered shows that the trapped animals lived between 52 and 50 million years ago, when the Indian subcontinent was still an island that was moving at the relatively fast pace of 15 to 25 centimetres a year towards Asia, before colliding with the continent to form the Himalayas.

Already, the scientists have shown that the similarities of the species in the amber to species living in Asia and Europe have exploded a theory known as the "biotic island ferry", where India was thought to have carried much of its wildlife to Asia, where it then escaped to populate the Eurasian landmass.

"The idea is called the biotic ferry because India was isolated for millions of years after being connected to the ancient continent of Gondwanaland. After the collision between India and Asia, its fauna was able to jump from India to Asia where it spread all over Europe," Professor Rust said. "What we found in this 52 million year old amber is that the insects contained in it already show close connections to European fauna of almost the same time.

"The amber shows, similar to an old photo, what life looked like in India just before the collision with the Asian continent. The insects trapped in the fossil resin cast a new light on the history of the sub-continent," he added.

Indian scientist Ashok Sahni from the University of Lucknow found the amber while looking for other fossils.

"He was digging for mammoth fossils and he came across these strange stones which be brought to Germany to show me because there were no amber specialists in India," Professor Rust said. "There is an enormous volume of amber to be found. This is just the beginning."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
New Articles
tvDownton Abbey Christmas special
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald in the Doctor Who Christmas special
tvForget the rumours that Clara Oswald would be quitting the Tardis
Arts and Entertainment
Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi showing a small mascot shaped like a vagina
The Queen delivers her Christmas message
newsTwitter reacts to Her Majesty's Christmas Message
Arts and Entertainment
Life and Style
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor


Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all