Insects in Amber

Tami O'Connor, Educational Innovationsby: Tami O’Connor

What is Amber?

Millions of years ago large forests in some parts of the world began to seep globs of sticky, aromatic resin down the sides of the trees. Unlike sap, resin is produced to protect the tree from disease and injury and is extruded through the bark of the tree during rapid periods of growth.

As it continued to ooze, this resin would trap such things as insects, seeds, leaves and other light debris. As geologic time progressed, these forests were buried under sediment and the resin hardened and formed the soft, warm, golden gem we know today as amber. Most of the amber in the world ranges from 30 to 90 million years old and is found in sedimentary clay, shale and sandstones associated with layers of lignite.

Amber is found in the far-corners of the world and is mined from the ground. It can be found from the shores of the Baltic Sea (Poland, Russia, Germany, Denmark, Lithuania), to mountain ranges in the Dominican Republic and Columbia. There is also Romanian, Burmese and Canadian Amber. Amber can be found in the United States and is most abundant in Alaska and New Jersey. This amber dates back to the Cretaceous Period, the age of the Dinosaurs! The size of amber found varies tremendously. The biggest piece of Dominican amber ever found was 18 pounds!

Amber can be hand or machine polished. Professionals use machinery such as sanding wheels to polish amber. They first start with coarser grit levels of sandpaper and as material is removed and they get closer to the surface, they switch to less coarse grit levels to add final touches. Final polishing can be done with a cotton buffing wheel and dental polishing compound. For amber jewelry, holes are drilled with a very fine drill bit. Experts must be aware that amber is sensitive to extreme heat.

Amber actually has the ability to develop a static charge when rubbed with a cloth. In fact, the source of the word electricity is from the Greek name for amber elektron.

Copal is a younger form of amber. Much of it from Columbia is said to be up to 10 million years old. Over the past several years, it has become available in great supply. Dealers who sell other types of older and more rare amber, such as Baltic or Dominican, due to their commercial interest, have been trying to convince others to not classify copal as a type of amber. Many scientists disagree, stating that anything made from resin IS technically amber, despite its age.

Insects in Amber

In the movie Jurassic Park, the storyline was that dinosaur DNA had been retrieved from insect remains found in amber, allowing them to regenerate dinosaur life for the park. Though there are actual insects found embedded inside some amber, this is just a story. Scientists have never been able, in real life, to do this.

Beware! There are actually counterfeit producers of amber who make fake amber using living insects and synthetic resins. Experts have tests to confirm what is real or fake. At Educational Innovations, our amber is real. We only purchase our amber from reputable miners who guarantee authenticity.

Educational Innovations has a terrific hands-on lesson to use with your students as a culminating activity for your geology unit or unit on dinosaurs. This class kit comes complete with everything your students will need to clean and polish actual pieces of amber. Your students will all leave your classroom with a small sample piece as each kit includes 8 one-inch pieces of amber for polishing and 17 smaller amber samples The kit also includes 25 plastic bags to secure samples, 8 polishing brushes, amber polish (aka: gel toothpaste), sandpaper and a complete teacher’s guide. This activity is perfect for the elementary and middle school classroom.

Kit Contents

• 8 large pieces of rough amber to use for class activity
• 17 small pieces of rough amber
• 25 plastic bags for students to secure their amber samples
• 8 polishing brushes
• Tube of amber polish
• 2 Sheets of sandpaper (9×11)

4 Responses to Insects in Amber

  1. Some good information in your post. Thanks for the pleasant read!

  2. Elaine Gibbon says:

    I heard that there is a test for real amber by rubbing it with wool. Is this true and if so what is the affect that I am looking for.

  3. Elaine —

    A four-part test determines genuine amber. Place a drop or two of alcohol (isopropanol or ethanol) on the polished surface of the specimen and allow it to evaporate. It will make copal sticky and there will be no reaction to amber or other fake materials. If the sample scratches with a pin it’s amber as glass won’t scratch. Heat a wire or needle until red hot, allow it to slightly cool, then press it against the edge of the sample. It will produce a puff of smoke. If the puff smells slightly acrid resinous it’s amber, if on the other hand the smell is sweet resinous, then its copal. A word of caution: celluloid is flammable and other plastics can give off potentially harmful vapors. Finally, place seven teaspoons of table salt into 12 inches (300 milliliters) of water and stir until salt is dissolved. If the sample floats its either copal or amber all other materials will sink.

    Cheers, Dr Reese

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