Fossil Amber
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Fossil Amber
(also see Insects)







Fossil Amber or Fossil Resin

Fossil Resin is the proper terminology for what has commonly been called amber, and is, as the proper name denotes, fossilized resin of botanical origin. The common word amber has numerous other usages, such an orangish-yellow color, a type of ale, a kidnapping alert system, a version of the Linux operating system, and many, many more. Fossil resin reflects many frequencies of light, including red, green and blue, thus spanning the entire visible spectrum. Archeological findings show that prehistoric humans used fossil resin for ornamentation as far back as 30,000 years ago. Use of fossil resin for jewelry and other decoration constitutes a large industry, and fossil resin is often considered as a gemstone. However, this consideration is very misleading: while diamonds are forever, fossil resin is not. Diamonds are extremely hard and stable crystal structures of tetrahedrally bonded carbon atoms. Fossil resin, on the other hand, is a highly unstable polymer consisting of structural units and repeating units connected by covalent chemical bonds. Both DNA and proteins are also polymers.

Commercial interests have succeeded in labeling younger fossil resins in order to ascribe a higher monetary value to older resins. The term copal is thus used in a derogatory context, but has no significance based on either chemistry or paleontology. Jewelers have been trained to draw the distinction, where science sees none except for the resin’s age and age of fossilized plants, animals and fungi inclusions.

Amber is valued for its botanical and animal inclusions that are trapped by the sticky resin as it flows fulfilling its role in protecting the plant. Of course, other life is captured including microscopic bacteria that often produce gas bubbles, and various fungi. Both the botanical and animal inclusions not only add beauty, but also are of potential scientific value in the study of taxonomy and evolution. Animal inclusions are usually invertebrates, specifically arthropods, and only extremely rarely a vertebrate such as a small lizard. Fossil resin inclusions are overwhelmingly insects, which naturally follows from the resin’s evolutionary origin as a physical means of protecting plants from insect pests.

Fossil resin's molecular constituency is mainly carbon and hydrogen atoms that readily form hexagonal rings. Molecular bonding between the rings increases over time (called polymerization), and the sticky resin becomes hard. There are other types of atoms in trace to larger amounts that alter physical properties and may be substrates to certain organic solvents. For all practical purposes, the hardened resin is a "plastic". Just when the resin becomes amber, or a fossil, is not definable by any scientific criteria.
Amber comes from throughout the world, even the Arctic. However, in terms of commercial availability, the Baltic area of Europe produces vast amounts, followed by the Dominican Republic in a distant second, with minor amounts coming from Central and South America, and more specifically, Mexico and Colombia, respectively. Amber from other localities is very small by comparison.

Baltic Amber

An enormous amount of fossil resin is extracted on the shoreline of the Baltic Sea, and these strata are dated to be Eocene in age, give or take a few million years, thus making it some of the oldest amber available that is available in commercial quantity. The largest Baltic amber mine is in Kaliningrad, Russia, but Baltic amber is also found in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Russia, and sometimes washes ashore far away in Denmark, Norway, and England. Fossil inclusions are reletively rare, almost always in isolation and usually tiny, and the amber is normally occluded with botanical debris and bubbles; for this reason, fossil specimens are best made viewable in pieces cut to small size prior to polishing, and pictures many times require a trinocular microscope.

Dominican Amber

Geological data for amber from sedimentary deposits in the Dominican Republic predict an age dating to the Oligocene, in the range of 20 to 30 million years old, presuming the resin is a primary in situ deposit, and not a secondary deposit by transport/erosion etc. Dominican amber from Cotui, however, is Pliocene or Pleistocene, has larger and more insects, and is otherwise indistinguishable from older material from the dated sedimentary deposits. Since resin-producing trees are still abundant in this tropical island area, resins of any age are possible. The older fossil resins are from deep mines in the hillsides, and the extraction can be a dangerous proposition, with risk of being buried in a cave in. The insect inclusions in Dominican amber are fairly abundant, the insects larger, and the amber of higher clarity than found in Baltic amber. Though uncommon, fossil association are found more frequently in Dominican amber.

Colombian Amber

Far and away the most fossiliferous amber originates in Colombia, albeit it has become fairly widespread that all fossil resin from Colombia is called copal. The amber versus copal distinction is lost on many geologists and paleontologists that are aware that scientific data is unavailable to determine the age of fossil resins from this region. The consensus age estimate seems to be Pleistocene (up to 2 million years old), but estimates range to the Lower Miocene (about 20 million years old). Though geological studies are unlikly soon in this region that is controlled by drug cartels, it seems safe conjecture that there is a large range of age across different deposits, similar to that of the Dominican Republic. In the Dominican republic, mine cave-ins are a danger, in Colombia the danger is AK47's. Whether amber or copal, young or old, the fossil insects and other arthropod inclusions and their associations are truly sublime. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Colombian amber to those with a scientific propensity are the wonderful fossil associations. So many species are often in association that the specimen will represent an ecological cross section of an ancient rainforest.

Amber versus Copal

A few more words about the distinction between amber and copal, both slang terms without scientific basis, is warranted. It is fairly widespread on the Internet and several popular and otherwise wonderful "amber" books that there is no amber from Colombia, that it is "young" copal, because it has not yet undergone some magical transformation that is obfuscated but never described. This is a perfect example of the old saw: "if you tell a lie enough times, it becomes (perceptive) reality". Any polymer chemist studying fossil resin chemistry would quickly discern that the essential constituents and chemical binding characteristics are demonstrably the same in all fossil resin, regardless of locality, and regardless of age, once the material has hardened - there is no important scientific distinction to be made. Several of these sources offer as fact a small sample from one locality in Colombia carbon dated at a couple hundred years old. They then make the banal extrapolation that the small sample's age can be extrapolated to all fossil resin in what is a huge country where trees have been producing resin for as long as anywhere else. Besides the idiocy of presuming all fossil resin is the same age as the one sample, they neglect to point out that the evolutionary adaptation of resin production has not been eradicated from plant genomes. That is, plants continue to make resin, and thus the only plausible assumption is that fossil resin exists in a continuum of ages to present in all places where it is found, unless the botanical source has disappeared. It is unfortunate that a few gemologists and others not traned in science continue to promulgate scientific popycock. For a few more words on this, Dr. Robert E. Woodruff, Emeritus Taxonomist, Florida State Collection of Arthropods, who has collected and studied fossil resin and insects in fossil resin throughout his career, has several thoughts to share on the copal versus amber controversy.

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