The Amber Forest: A Reconstruction of a Vanished World
In Jurassic Park, amber fossils provided the key to bringing dinosaurs back to life. Scientists in the movie extracted dinosaur blood from mosquitoes preserved for millions of years in amber–hardened tree resin–and used the blood’s DNA to revive the creatures that terrified audiences around the globe. In this book, George and Roberta Poinar use amber for a similar act of revival–only they bring back an entire ecosystem. The Poinars are world leaders in the study of amber fossils and have spent years examining the uniquely rich supply that has survived from the ancient forests of the Dominican Republic. They draw on their research here to reconstruct in words, drawings, and spectacular color photographs the ecosystem that existed on the island of Hispaniola between fifteen and forty-five million years ago. The result is the most accurate picture scientists have yet produced of any tropical forest of the past.
The specimens examined by the Poinars reflect amber’s extraordinary qualities as a medium for preservation. Millions of years ago, countless plants, invertebrates, and small vertebrates were trapped in the sticky resin that flowed from the trees of ancient forests and, as that resin hardened into translucent, golden amber, they were preserved in almost perfect condition. Samples analyzed and illustrated here include a wide range of insects and plants–many now extinct–as well as such vertebrates as frogs, lizards, birds, and small mammals. There are even frozen scenes of combat: an assassin bug grappling with a stingless bee, for example, and a spider attacking a termite. By examining these plants and animals and comparing them to related forms that exist today, the authors shed new light on the behavior of these organisms as well as the environment and climate in which they lived and died.
The Poinars present richly detailed drawings of how the forests once appeared. They discuss how and when life colonized Hispaniola and what caused some forms to become extinct. Along the way, they describe how amber is formed, how and where it has been preserved, and how it is mined, sold, and occasionally forged for profit today. The book is a beautifully written and produced homage to a remarkable, vanished world.
From the Back Cover
"The authors demonstrate great knowledge of many fascinating biological and socioeconomic aspects of amber. They write well and convey their enthusiasm for the subject with skill. The book is engaging and educational."–Peter Grant, Princeton University, author of Ecology and Evolution of Darwin’s Finches
"The book provides a clearly written summary of the biota of the Dominican Amber deposits, with a focus upon the insects."–Bruce H. Tiffney, University of California, Santa Barbara
–This text refers to the Paperback edition.
About the Author
George Poinar, Jr., is Professor Emeritus of Entomology at the University of California, Berkeley. He is currently on the faculty at Oregon State University, where he conducts research on amber deposits and biological inclusions in amber. He has written several books on amber, including, with Roberta Poinar, The Quest for Life in Amber. Roberta Poinar is an electron microscopist with experience in entomology and amber research. She and George Poinar led the international research effort to extract DNA from insects encased in amber.
Bugs, Plants, Frogs in Sap Tip Us to Primeval Jungle, October 18, 2004
Millions of years ago, a meat-eating animal snuck through the primeval forest in what is now the Dominican Republic. Taking a short break in the shade of the towering canopy, it sat on some bamboo shoots which broke off in its fur. As the animal continued on its search for its next meal, the shoots began to irritate it. Growling (as I imagine), it rubbed up against an algarrobo tree. Some of the irritating plant fell out, along with one or two of the animal’s hairs. These things fell into some resin or sap which exuded from the tree. The sap preserved them perfectly. Later the large drop of sap fell to the ground, was covered by debris which turned to earth, burying the sap completely. It lay there for a million or more years, then the ocean rose, taking the object to the bottom, where it was polished or preserved for more millions of years. Finally, due to the tectonic movements of the earth’s plates, the ocean bottom where the (now) amber lay rose up into the mountains of an island. When Europeans arrived there in the tiny fragment of time known as "history" in this whole unbelievable span, they dug out the amber and found the preserved proof of that one moment in an animal’s activities a possible 25 million years ago !
Poinar and Poinar have created a fascinating scientific work with their reconstruction of what the forest of that epoch looked like. Using the thousands of examples of plants, seeds, petals, leaves, pollen, insects, and frogs or lizards that fell into the tree sap and were preserved like time capsules, they describe the ancient jungle long before any man trod this earth. They rely on the principle of behaviorial fixity-that is, the idea that species that fill certain ecological niches today did so in the past as well. They describe dozens of strange creatures, mostly insects (because they were abundant and small enough to get trapped often) that inhabit today’s tropical forests as well as those in the past. The majority of the book is devoted to describing as many organisms as possible with an enormous number of black and white photographs and line drawings to help your imagination. They also have a whole section of color photographs of the actual amber pieces. At the end there is a short reconstruction (or summary) of the whole vanished forest as well as an interesting discussion of climatic change and the reason for the disappearance of many species between that time and the present. Not being a person with a scientific background, I found all these things excitingly different from my usual reading fare, but the language used-apart from having to deal with such terms as homozygotic, depurination, dehiscent, and phytotelmata, which don’t exactly roll off my tongue-is understandable by any educated lay reader. I found THE AMBER FOREST one of the most fascinating books of science that I have ever read and one of the best books in any field that I’ve read recently. If learning about the symbiosis of plants and insects, parasites and hosts, ants and fungus, in fact all the biological world of a long-gone jungle, has any appeal to you, don’t miss this work.