Living Fossils from Gondwana 42 Million Years Ago Unearthed in Australian Amber

Living Fossils from Gondwana 42 Million Years Ago Unearthed in Australian Amber

Amber, which is fossilized tree resin, has the unique ability to preserve ancient life forms in incredible detail. It acts as a time capsule, capturing tiny animals, plants, and microorganisms from millions of years ago. This makes it highly valuable to palaeontologists worldwide and is often referred to as the “holy grail” of palaeontology.

Unlike traditional fossils found on land or in the sea, amber preserves inclusions in full three dimensions. This allows scientists to study fossil organisms in great detail that would otherwise not have been recorded. This is particularly important considering that around 85% of modern biodiversity comes from arthropods, while only 0.3% comes from mammals commonly found as fossils in rocks.

Amber provides a unique opportunity to find less common specimens and reveal the diversity of past ecosystems. Most amber discoveries come from the Northern Hemisphere, but Australia is one of the rare places in the Southern Hemisphere where scientists can study organisms trapped in amber. The most promising site for finding preserved organisms is a former coal mining area in Victoria, where the amber and fossils are estimated to be 42-40 million years old.

Recent research on Australian amber has revealed biting midges, baby spiders, and mating flies. These findings not only provide insights into where these organisms lived in the past but also show that many of them still exist in Australia’s forests today, although their geographic ranges have significantly reduced. The fact that creatures from ancient Gondwana have persisted for over 40 million years emphasizes the importance of protecting them for the future.

Advancements at ANSTO’s Australian Synchrotron research facility have greatly improved the study of organisms trapped in amber. The facility’s improved resolution and capability to scan smaller samples with X-rays allow for detailed 3D reconstructions and easier species identification. Additionally, the synchrotron has made it possible to detect inclusions within large, opaque pieces of amber that were previously difficult to examine.

Some of the major findings in Australian amber include a “non-biting” midge, a true biting midge, and a parasitic wasp. These insects are the first of their kind found in Australia, and their discovery highlights the existence of living fossils in Australian forests. However, these species now face threats such as climate change, deforestation, and urban sprawl. Protecting these ancient “living fossils” and their environments is crucial for the health of native ecosystems.