Unknown Illinois: Ancient Amber Fossils Yield Discoveries

Mar 1, 2016

Microscopes and specimen trays sit atop several long, rectangular tables in this windowless lab at the offices of the Illinois Natural History Survey in Champaign. A row of metal buckets lines the floor. Each bucket brims with what look like brown stones.

These are no ordinary stones. These jagged rocks are both precious and ancient. They contain amber-encased insect fossils, some of them as old as 20 million years.

"Insects are phenomenally diverse and the same was true 20 million years ago, " said the Natural History Survey's Dr. Sam Heads, "Much of the public doesn't know that because the kind of work we do takes place behind closed doors in a museum or research laboratory."

Heads is a paleontologist and an entomologist, someone who studies both fossils and insects. Every day, he sorts through thousands of pieces of amber. Trapped inside are all sorts of creatures, from mites to flies, wasps, ants and grasshoppers.

"Amber has had an esthetic appeal for a very long time," Heads said. "Romans valued amber higher than gold. So it's captured the imagination of people for millennia. Not only is it beautiful to look at, but it contains this world inside that is unique."

Heads and his staff made international news last summer when they discovered the fossil of a new genus of the pygmy grasshopper.

"As soon as I saw it, I knew it was a completely new genus and new species. What was interesting about it was that it appears to be transitional."

Heads slides the now-famous specimen under a microscope. "So I'm looking right now at the wings which are probably the most significant part of this specimen," he said.

Heads said modern pygmy grasshoppers don't have wings. "But we didn't know when they lost their wings or how they lost their wings," he added. "Was it one fell swoop or over time?"

The little fellow resting under Heads' microscope seems to end that mystery.

"All of the modern relatives have no wings at all, so this provided us with the transitional, intermediate form between winged ancestor and its modern wingless descendants."

Heads named the new species Electrotettix attenboroughi. Electrotettix means amber grasshopper in Latin. Attenboroughi refers to Heads' childhood hero, the natural scientist and TV documentarian, Sir David Attenborough.

The attenboroughi grasshopper may have been his most dramatic discovery yet, but Heads said in this kind of research, "It's fascinating work. Everyday when you find something, there is a very good chance that it's new."

It is also tedious work that requires hours of looking into a microscope, washing, sanding and polishing amber.

Jared Thomas is the research assistant who is often the first to see what lurks inside these amber pieces. "Everyday I go through, pull out a handful. I try to grab pieces that are clearest and just give them a rinse of water," Thomas said.

Thomas lines the amber pieces on a paper towel. If a piece appears to have fossils, or what paleontologists call "inclusions," Thomas begins scraping the stone with an Emory board-type instrument.

"You give it a little polish to get this grim off and then you rinse it under water a couple of times when you're doing that. After that, we look at it under a microscope again," Thomas said.

I ask Thomas about an instrument sitting nearby that looks like a dental drill. "That's where we attach the buffing wheels to polish these pieces," he said to the sound of the drill's whirl. "Its operated by a foot pedal, so you can vary the speed quite easily."

Sometimes they have to cut the amber, which Heads describes as a painstaking process. "It's basically the same kind of thing you would do with a diamond or some other precious stone if you were going to produce a piece of jewelry," Heads explained. "You would cut and grind and polish these flat surfaces. We do it with amber so we can see more clearly through the piece."

Thomas said that when the two researchers finally do get a good look, "It's like looking into a hall of mirrors at the fair. You have to twist the amber in your hands, look from top to bottom. You can spend 20 minutes on each piece just looking through it."

That means literally peering for hours each day at these tiny stones. "I can stand, I can sit," Thomas said. It's important to rotate because otherwise you can get a kink in your neck and it sort of ruins your day."

The amber fossils were borught to the Natural History Survey by Milton Sanderson, an entomologist who discovered them on a trip to the Dominican Republic in 1959. Sanderson's specialty was beetles, not fossils, so he could only work on the amber during his spare time. After he retired, the specimens sat unexamined for decades. Then Heads showed up in 2009, as post-doctorate student from Portsmith, England, and went on a kind of treasure hunt.

"On the day I found it, I wasn't really looking for it, which is so often the way," Heads said. The fossils were stored in metal pastry filling buckets. They were found under a sink in a cupboard room. "They had been pot away and forgotten."

Amber is formed through tree resin. Thomas said the insects preserved for millennia probably only took less than a second to entrap.

"They might get their feet stuck, one or two legs. But then another flow of resin could end up coming down over the top of them and they're done for, stuck in there for good."

Kind of a sad way to die. "Yes," Thomas said, "But it's great for preservation." He fingered one of the fossils. "This charismatic insect had the misfortune for it, but the good fortune for us of dying in a wonderful pose."

The insect in question turned out to be a leaf hopper who died with its wings spread. Estimated age: 20 million years.

Heads said working in this Lilliputian world of insects fossils often offers a glimpse of what scientists call "deep time."

"Most people tend to think of time on a human scale and for us a hundred years is a long time. In a geological sense, it is absolutely nothing, and a thousand years is nothing, every a hundred thousand years when you are talking about life on earth."

Heads said he's worked on other projects with fossils from Brazil whose radioactive material show them to be as old as 120 million years. His work has drawn occasional criticism from creationists, those who dispute the theory of evolution. They believe in a literal interpretation of the creation story in the Bible and maintain the earth is only about 10,000 years old.

Heads said there is a good deal of mystery to this kind of work. "I have spent my entire adult life and a good chunk of my childhood as well learning about the history of life and the sheer amount of time that has passed," Heads said. "It's just remarkable to me that evolution is capable of producing such a vast array of life."

Heads said he'll leave religious questions to theologians. As a scientist, he said there is no denying the wonders of the universe.

"Simply studying the diversity of life and history of life on the planet is enough to convince me life is magnificent and there are some amazing natural forces at work to produce the diversity we see today."

Though they examine thousands of pieces in a given week, Heads and Thomas said they never tire of looking at amber. When they buy gifts of jewelry for their wives, it's usually -- you guessed it -- amber.

Heads said it isn't unusual for natural history collections like the amber fossils to languish for years in laboratories. Scientists call these collections "dark data." Heads said they aren't studied because much of this kind of research remains understaffed and underfunded. A situation likely to become even more common in Illinois because of the state budget crisis.