Newly discovered pieces of amber have given scientists a peek into the Africa of 95 million years ago, when flowering plants blossomed across Earth and the animal world scrambled to adapt.
Suspended in the stream of time were ancestors of modern spiders, wasps and ferns, but the prize is a wingless ant (above) that challenges current notions about the origins of that globe-spanning insect family.
“Most specimens represent a unique fossil record of their group from Africa, and some are among the oldest records in the world,” wrote researchers in a paper April 5 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The amber, which is formed when plant resin fossilizes, preserving flora and fauna trapped within, was found in what is now northwest Ethiopia. Ninety-five million years ago, it was part of a disintegrating Gondwana, one of two vast land masses that spawned the seven modern continents.
Most amber deposits have been found in former parts of Laurasia, the other supercontinent of the time. The Gondwana record is relatively sparse.
The amber in the latest study dates to the middle of the Cretaceous era, which followed the dinosaur-dominated Jurassic and witnessed the rise of mammals, birds and flowering plants. Mammals get most of the attention, but changes to flora were just as profound.
Before the Cretaceous, flowering plants — which are now the most diverse type of terrestrial plant — didn’t exist. By the mid-Cretaceous, they dominated the land. Existing plants and animals had to adapt, filling the flowery new niches. The new study is a snapshot of that process.
While it will take years to interpret the ecological tales trapped in the new amber, one important story is already suggested. Inside the Ethiopian amber is an ant that looks nothing like ants found in Cretaceous amber from France and Burma. Those deposits had placed the origin of ants in Laurasia. That’s no longer certain.
“The Ethiopian amber is of great importance for improving our knowledge of the evolutionary history of terrestrial arthropods, plants and Fungi,” wrote the researchers.
For more with pictures: Wired Science