The amber not only preserves animals and insects, but freezes them in a still-life scene. One chunk even captures a pair of long-legged flies in what appears to be a mating act.
That’s why “amber is considered to be a Holy Grail in the discipline,” said Associate Professor Jeffrey Stilwell, a palaeontologist at Monash University who led the project.
The six-year project released its first findings on Friday. But for the scientists, this is really the start of the journey. Once home isolation is over and they can return to the lab, they plan to start analysing just what’s in the treasure trove of amber they have collected.
Amber is made when tree resin – not sap – drips down a trunk. Resin is a tree’s defence mechanism, designed to stick to any insects that might try to eat it.
If the resin falls in the right place, like a swamp or forest, it can harden and be preserved. Over time those forests turn into fossil fuels like coal.
With the help of about 30 volunteers, the project team has spent the past few years smashing coal to bits with hammers and picking out the amber preserved inside.
What did they find inside?
“Unfortunately, it seems Australia has been host to biting midges for a very long time,” says Dr Andrew Langendam, one of the team’s microscopists.
They also found new species of flies, mosses, ants, and “mites which have these big long legs on them,” Dr Langendam says. “And we found hexapods – tiny little bugs less than a millimetre long called springtails.”
The amber comes from different times in Australia’s history. Put together, they give us a window into the enormous changes the continent has undergone.
The most ancient amber, found in Tasmania, is about 230 million years old. That would have formed when Australia was part of Pangaea, the supercontinent that made up of all the Earth’s land.
About 200 million years ago it broke in half, and Australia’s section – known as Gondwana – headed south. During this time, known as the Jurassic, the Earth was warmer than it is today, there was no Antarctic ice-sheet, and Gondwana was covered in thick rainforest populated by dinosaurs.
Some of the insects caught in amber likely came into contact with those dinosaurs, and maybe even sipped their blood. Sadly, there is no chance of finding dinosaur DNA inside, Jurassic-Park style.
“DNA does not get preserved for that long. Amber is not airtight. DNA will degrade,” says Dr Langendam.
Liam is The Age and Sydney Morning Herald’s science reporter