Discover how this enigmatic amber is shining a light on ecosystems millions of years old.
A beautiful and versatile material, amber (fossilised tree resin) has been treasured for thousands of years. Found all over the world, it can vary widely in appearance and has many different uses. Used for centuries as a decorative artefact, amber was also treasured for its perceived magical powers, crafted into charms and amulets to heal and ward off evil spirits.
Amber also has the unique capacity to preserve fragile life, opening a special window into the past. Delicate insects and other inclusions have been kept safe in amber for millions of years.
Until relatively recently, Burmese amber was regarded as one of the rarer and lesser-known ambers. However, a resurgence in the study of this enigmatic amber over the past two decades means that it has become the most important amber from the Cretaceous Period (66-145 million years ago).
A hundred years ago, this amber was considered to be about 40 million years old. At about that time, American zoologist Theodore Cockerell (1866-1948) named 37 species of insects and four other arthropods trapped within it, from the only public collection at the Natural History Museum in London.
Renewed interest in this collection, mainly from Russian scientists, enabled the description of two new species of ant in 1996 and 15 other insects in 2000. It was then realised that these insects had more in common with those of other Cretaceous ambers.
In about 2000, a Canadian mining company started exporting freshly mined amber from Myanmar (formerly Burma) and collections were built up by the American Museum of Natural History in New York and private collectors in the USA. There then followed a steady output of papers describing new species from the American material and the London collection. Study of the sedimentary bed that the amber came from enabled it to be accurately dated to 99 million years old, based on radioactive zircon crystals.
In recent years the Chinese have become very interested in Burmese amber and many new mines have opened up in Myanmar to supply the demand. Thus this amber is now readily available and many scientists around the world are studying its inclusions. The number of new scientific papers published describing new species has skyrocketed.
A list of all the species in Burmese amber can be found here.
In 2010, National Museums Scotland was able to purchase a small collection of 44 pieces with interesting inclusions from a private collector. Many of these specimens were displayed in the Amazing Amber exhibition in 2013.
A few new species have been named from this collection and are shown here.
Late in 2016, National Museums purchased another collection of 43 pieces with some very interesting inclusions. Also we have recently received the generous donation of four pieces containing rare woodlice. These specimens will be studied in detail in due course.