What is AMBER?

When a human being is injured with a cut, scrape or other abrasion, your body exudes blood, which contains elements which coagulate and form a scab to allow the cut to heal.

Amber is a form of tree resin, which is exuded by a tree to try to heal a wound to the tree. When some living trees are damaged by abrasion, insect infestation or other destruction to the trunk or limbs of the tree, the tree exudes the resin to seal up the damage or injury. The tree has outer bark which is pretty much the dead part of the outer tree surface, but under that is the cambian layer which carries the nutrients to the various portions of the tree. Flowing in the cambrian layer is the sap or resin which will flow out through a break in the outer surface of the tree.

This resin is exuded as a protective substance to heal the break in the tree surface from disease and invasion of pathogens, including insects. The resin starts out as fairly fluid and gradually hardens with time, temperature and the normal procedure of aging of the resin, just as blood coagulates and forms a hard scab.

When the resin is somewhat fluid, it is sticky and as it hardens it would be more difficult for an ant or other crawling insect, or a wasp, bee or other flying insect, of a spider or even a frog or other living thing which gets into the sap or resin to extract itself from this substance. Think about those traps you can buy which are sticky for mice or rats to step onto and then not be able to extricate themselves from the surface. As the surface hardens, the unfortunate creature which contacted the sticky resin is permanently trapped on or in the resin.

In fact as a creature fights to try to extricate itself, it often finds the resin is like quicksand and the creature only gets more of the resin on itself and finally is buried totally inside the resin. In time, the tree with the resin and trapped creature will fall to the ground and in some cases become buried and eventually become fossilized. However, the fossilization is different with different living things in different surroundings and the matrix in which the fossilization takes place.

In intermediate form of resin becoming amber is called copal. Copal can be burned and have an odor which amber will not have. Copal is not the final product of fossilization. There is good grade copal coming from some Central and South American locations. On occasions sellers and dealers will attempt to say this is amber, but it is not. The best amber is the Baltic Amber, which is also the second best place for fossils of insects. The best is the very fine lithographic quality of slate stone from Solnhofen, Germany and the third best place for insect fossils in the World are those found in the volcanic ash layers at Florissant, Colorado (click here to see that page on this website).

Time, pressure, heat, and other aging processes turn the resin into copal and then into amber. Amber is often regarded as a gemstone and put into jewelry. Amber is actually an organic substance whose chemical structure changes little over time. However, it no longer will burn. Amber does not turn into stone like some other fossils. However, sea shells are another good instance where millions of years after being buried essentially remain the same as when the fossilization process started for the sea shell.

Amber in time oxidizes and amber degrades when exposed to the oxygen. Therefore, like many other items which fossilize, it is more rare than usual for resin to turn into amber and does so only under special conditions. Amber is almost always found in dense, wet sediments, such as clay and sand which were found in prehistoric ponds, river deltas, lagoons and lakes.

Amber can be found in many locations around the Earth, but most all such locations have only small trace amounts of amber. In the entire World there are only about twenty or so deposits in which there is sufficient amber to actually mine the amber.

Amber is an amazing preserver of ancient life. Once an insect, spider or even frogs and other more complex animals and other plant life become embedded in amber, they are in a time capsule which preserves the item intact. While one may not actually be able to remove a mosquito from amber, extract dinosaur DNA from the blood stored in the mosquito and create a new living dinosaur as was somewhat the theme in Jurassic Park, there is no doubt that what is found in amber is often in excellently preserved condition. The detail of preservation is amazing and so minute that scientists are indeed finding the ability to extract DNA from amber. Amber also allows an understanding of the ecological circumstances existing at the time the resin entrapped its hapless victim, both plants and animals.

A piece of amber with what appears to be
possibly a cockroach embedded in the amber
A piece of amber with what appears to be
a flying insect, such as possibly a termite

The insect in amber above is part of the personal amber collection
of the PMNS Curator Terrell William 'Terry' Proctor, J.D.

To see some examples of things embedded in amber, go to http://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/amber which is a page on the website of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, New York. We express our appreciation to material located on their website for reference in this webpage.

Amber is also used in jewelry and has been for centuries. The Romans made rings and bracelets from amber. Amber is regularly used in modern jewelry as well. In time we will try to present more photos of amber, both Paleontologically and jewelry-wise.