Back then, 50 million years ago, it must have been a really beautiful moment for them: lovesick on top of each other flying through the warm, tropical forest air of Central Europe, probably a little out of control, more likely lurching than flying, and then a piece of bad luck: Splat! They land in a large golden drop of resin from one of these great pine trees. A certain death for the pair of flies from the Mesozoic era, but at the same time, almost romantically, a ticket to eternity: united forever in a moment of complete happiness in a golden amber coffin...
Since the world famous (almost forgotten until today) Amber Room in the Katharine Palace in St. Petersburg was reconstructed in painstakingly detailed work and from today once again entices flocks of visitors to the Russian Baltic Sea metropolis, amber, which during its history has not only been turned into jewellery, is once again on everyone’s tongue. Today, the fossilised clumps of sap, which are often referred to as the "Tears of the Gods" or "the Gold of the North", are even used in alternative medicine. An idea with a curious history: in the Middle Ages doctors hung up pieces of amber as protection against the plague...
What however very few people know is that fossilised tree sap and the small animals and plants that were accidentally trapped in it millions of years ago offer scientists a unique glance into the Tertiary period, a time when half-apes and small ancestral horses inhabited the forests of northern and central Europe, the forefathers of our modern cows grazed on the meadows and the continent of Australia had just freed itself from Antarctica, which was then free from ice.
"Is that not incredible? These animals look like they have been paralysed mid-motion", enthuses Dr. Norbert Vavra, University Professor at the Palaeontology Institute in Vienna when examining a rare 50 million-year-old praying mantis under the microscope: "Amber is a really unique means of preserving nature. Unique because even fragments of the genetic make-up, DNA, can be kept for such a long time due to the fact that the air-supply is cut off rapidly and due to good protection from pressure by earth and stone!" Unique too because up until now the experts do not know exactly why this special compound is not destroyed by such simple ingredients such as carbon, water, oxygen and a breeze of sulphur, flowers, leaves, beetles, bees, spiders and even small moss-scorpions and geckos.
The Hamburg Professor Dr. Wolfgang Weitschat, worldwide one of the biggest amber experts and co-author of the Atlas of Plants and Animals in Baltic Amber (in original: "Atlas der Pflanzen und Tiere im Baltischen Bernstein" Pfeil Verlag, ISBN 3-931516-94-6): "You might at first glance be disappointed that we know so little about large animals of that time and that apparently 50 million years ago, when the Earth was so very different, the very same insects as today crawled and flew around Europe. Despite this, with the many finds that fall into place like a puzzle, we can even deduce lots of animals’ behaviour patterns: for instance, that ants 50 million years ago towed their eggs around with them and kept aphids to "milk". We know that because we have found ants frozen in amber in the middle of their work. Or fleas, quasi mid-jump: trapped with a tuft of hair from some ancestral cow that got stuck in sap. Under the microscope it is a golden window to the past, like a 50 million-year-old amber-photo."
At the beginning of the book "Jurassic Park" science-fiction author Michael Crichton let his imagination run free by let scientists search through tonnes of amber from the Cretaceous period, ruled by dinosaurs, 120 million years ago, for blood-suckers such as mosquitoes and ticks. The idea: dinosaurs or other exotic ancestral inhabitants obviously never died in a clump of tree sap and thus conserved. But the blood sucked by insects had to have come from T-Rex and Co. and with the help of genetic make-up from this blood the prehistoric monster could be cloned.
What in Spielberg’s film opened into a spectacular prehistoric monster massacre appears to be possible at least in theory. Prof. Weitschat: "US scientists have already tried to extract DNA fragments from amber from the Cretaceous period twice. The problem is that this age-old amber from the times of dinosaurs has over time undergone too much pressure and too high a temperature. No DNA survives that. The amber that is only 50 million years old from the Baltic range would be much more appropriate. Unfortunately there were no dinosaurs left then. And moreover no one has actually found a tick or a mosquito full of blood in amber yet. They would certainly be worth a lot of money if they did!"