Capturing the Beauty of Amber

By Montgomery, Christine | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), June 4, 1997 | Go to article overview

Capturing the Beauty of Amber


Montgomery, Christine, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Amber has been described by some as "nature's organic jewel." But Francis Hueber, the National Museum of Natural History's curator of paleobotany (that means "really old plants"), takes a much more practical view of this fossilized form of tree resin.

Amber, he says, is Mother Nature's plastic.

Indeed, this usually yellowy-brown substance, which has enjoyed a high profile since its starring role in "Jurassic Park," looks and feels a lot like something synthetic. The perfect way it preserves ancient specimens, however, makes it priceless to scientists such as Mr. Hueber.

And before its scientific properties were ever appreciated, amber was being used to make jewelry and other decorative items for centuries.

The best of amber science and art come will together at the National Museum of Natural History Friday through Sept. 1 in what may be the largest exhibit of amber ever mounted.

"Amber: Window to the Past" contains 146 fossils caught in hardened resin, as well as almost 100 decorative pieces, including a bear-shaped amulet made sometime around 4500 B.C., re-creations of the Amber Room from the Ekatarininsky Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia, and a chest of inlaid amber mosaic made in 1705.

Other highlights of the exhibit include amber that has been harvested from New Jersey (dating back at least 90 million years) and the Dominican Republic and Mexico (23 million to 30 million years old). These natural pieces will be displayed in a life-size diorama of an amber forest in about 6,000 square feet of gallery space.

Bird and bug sounds, as well as a stream of running water, should add to the exhibit's "natural" feeling. Some of the amber pieces with organisms inside - or "inclusions," as the scientists call them - include:

* A 90- to 95-million-year-old mushroom that's so well preserved its spores are visible through a microscope.

* Rare pieces that hold small vertebrates, including a gecko whose fragile toe bones are still intact and visible through a microscope.

* A tree frog, one of the four largest known to exist in amber.

* Two amblypygids, relatives of the spider, one with a tiny piece of prey still in its jaws.

* A termite, its type now extinct, completely preserved, including its wings.

According to Mr. Hueber, the cost involved in bringing the exhibit from the American Museum of Natural History in New York means that adults and children older than 8 must pay $4 to view the exhibit. Every other Tuesday beginning June 17, tickets will be free.

During the life of the exhibit, Mr. Hueber and his colleague Conrad Labandeira will set up two ancillary exhibits demonstrating the research they conduct that involves ancient plants and insects embedded in amber. Those exhibits, which will be free, will house a good portion of the more than 5,000 pieces collected in their research. There also will be docents with carts full of amber that museum-goers can handle.

So just what is amber, and how does it work? According to Mr. Hueber, certain species of tropical pine trees slowly secrete a resin (it looks a lot like sap but doesn't contain the same properties) to protect themselves from critters who would eat the bark and from birds such as woodpeckers who "wound" them by pecking holes.

The resin is sticky, like fly paper, so that anything that comes in contact with it - a leaf, a lizard or ants, for example, gets stuck, dies and eventually gets coated with another layer of resin secretion. …

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